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Indo-Pacific

US and Indonesia to hold largest island defense drills

4,500-member Garuda Shield intended to counter China but Jakarta seeks balance

This year's Garuda Shield military exercise for the U.S. and Indonesia will focus on island defense. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Indonesia)

JAKARTA -- The U.S. and Indonesian armies will launch joint drills Sunday focused on island defense with more 4,500 service members, the largest exercise ever conducted by the two countries, Nikkei has learned.

The upcoming drills, part of the Garuda Shield exercises conducted annually by the two militaries for more than a decade, will be held on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi as well as in Kalimantan for two weeks, a source close to the Indonesian military told Nikkei.

The maneuvers come amid rising tensions over Beijing's military buildup in the South China Sea. Yet Jakarta also is deepening economic ties with Beijing, including by procuring large volumes of Chinese coronavirus vaccines. Indonesia and China held joint naval exercises in May, as Jakarta seeks to strike a balance between the two military powers.

The U.S. will send 2,282 personnel, while Indonesia contributes 2,246. The island defense drills involve landing operations, special forces and airborne units.

The American and Indonesian armed forces are working together to bolster maritime security. Marines from the two countries also conducted a joint exercise in June focusing on urban conflicts.

A similar exercise between the two forces is scheduled to be held in the U.S. later this year. Last month, the two countries began construction of a joint maritime training center in Batam, an island city at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca.

The edge of the exclusive economic zone surrounding Indonesia's Natuna Islands overlaps with Beijing's unilaterally declared "nine-dash line" demarking the country's claims in the South China Sea. (Google Maps)

China's maritime encroachment looms over this flurry of activities. The edge of the exclusive economic zone surrounding Indonesia's Natuna Islands overlaps with Beijing's unilaterally declared "nine-dash line" demarking the country's claims in the South China Sea.

The movement of Chinese government vessels and fishing ships in the area has unnerved Jakarta. In July 2020, the Indonesian navy conducted a large drill in the southern portion of the South China Sea.

Indonesia sees the upcoming exercise with the U.S. as a deterrent measure for defending the Natuna Islands. For Washington, the joint drills are part of efforts to forge a united front against China's military buildup in the South China Sea.

During his address delivered in Singapore on Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea have "no basis in international law." Austin expressed plans to deepen relations with allies and friendly nations in the region.

The U.S. and Australia are currently conducting the Talisman Sabre exercise around Australia. Defense forces from Japan, the U.K., Canada, South Korea and New Zealand are participating in the drills.

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