US and Indonesia stage joint military drill as Washington steps up engagement with Southeast Asia
- More than 4,500 army personnel are taking part in the largest-ever Garuda Shield exercise, seen as a significant commitment as Covid-19 rages
- Analysts say the drill and foreign minister Retno Marsudi’s visit to the US are part of Jakarta’s efforts to strengthen ties with the Biden administration
The highest-ranked official in the Biden administration to have visited Indonesia has been Deputy US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, whose trip was in May.
Nevertheless, analysts say the joint army drill – which is part of the annual Garuda Shield military exercise between the US and Indonesia – underlines that both countries are deeply invested in strengthening their relationship.
Garuda Shield has been held since 2009, but this year’s edition, to be held August 1-14, is the largest exercise to date.
“Over the years, the number of participants has been increasing. What I think is noteworthy is that this is the largest iteration, particularly at a time when Covid-19 provides so many obstacles and risks for this kind of exercise,” said Natalie Sambhi, founder and executive director of Verve Research in Perth, Australia.
The joint drill kicked off on Sunday, the same day Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi arrived in the US for a five-day visit. She has so far met Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific; National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan; and Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.
Retno is scheduled to meet her counterpart Antony Blinken on Tuesday, with Covid-19 recovery efforts, economic cooperation, maritime security and Asean affairs expected to be on the agenda. Blinken is also set to virtually participate in the annual Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting this week, along with other discussions related to the bloc.
In the Monday meeting with Retno, Sullivan said that Washington would provide an additional US$30 million to help in the fight against Covid-19, bringing total US assistance to Indonesia since the start of the pandemic to more than US$65 million – along with the donation of 8 million doses of the Moderna vaccine.
“They also discussed the Defence Department’s donation of [personal protective equipment] to the Indonesian armed forces for distribution to the civilian medical system as part of the ongoing Garuda Shield exercise,” a White House statement said.
Sambhi of Verve Research said Retno’s visit underlined that Jakarta and Washington were also looking to step up their seven-decade bilateral relationship in areas other than defence.
“This is part of an overall effort for Indonesia to keep strengthening its ties with the Biden administration, particularly at a time when Indonesia really needs support on the health front,” she said.
The visit and joint drill come as countries in the region strive to maintain a balance between the US and China, with rocky ties between the superpowers fuelling fears of a clash that could force countries to take sides.
While Indonesia has strong security ties with the US, it has made clear that its foreign policy is based on its national interests and has continued to pursue strong economic ties with China, its largest trade partner and second-biggest foreign investor last year.
“Beijing will expect Jakarta to maintain balance. If, however, US-Indonesia relations begin to add new forms of security cooperation, then China may begin to wonder whether it needs to worry about changes to Indonesia’s non-aligned status,” said Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the California-headquartered Rand Corporation think tank.
“China and Indonesia have come a long way since their stand-off in the Natuna Sea back in December 2019 and January 2020. Through a combination of China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Indonesia, Chinese vaccine diplomacy, plus Beijing’s offer to assist in the salvage mission of the sunken Indonesian submarine, I would argue that bilateral ties are quite positive nowadays,” Grossman said.
This year’s Garuda Shield drill will take place on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Borneo. The US has sent 2,282 military personnel to train alongside 2,246 members of the Indonesian armed forces.
According to the US Army’s 25th Infantry Division, the joint exercise is aimed at enhancing and enriching the jungle warfare ability of soldiers from each side. The drills will include field and aviation training as well as live-fire exercises.
Indonesian Army Chief of Staff General Andika Perkasa said there was more to the exercise than just a military drill.
“This is held to [strengthen] our friendship,” he said last week. “We’re not fussed about the material of any kind. The most important thing is to make new friends [and] network, while we see [how the US Army trains].”