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Politics

Indonesia busy playing catch-up

Saab's prototype unmanned surface vessel

JAKARTA -- Defense concerns worldwide are flocking to Indonesia. Indo Defence 2014, a trade show for defense equipment and machinery in Jakarta in early November, drew nearly 700 exhibitors from about 50 nations, and visitors reportedly topped 20,000.

     During the show, Saab unveiled its prototype Bonefish unmanned surface vessel. Saab says the Bonefish is well-suited to Indonesia's vast archipelago. With a coastline of 54,716km to protect and strategically located at some of Southeast Asia's most vital maritime choke points, such as the Strait of Malacca, Indonesia requires a large number of surface patrol vessels.

     Noting strong visitor interest, a director of the Swedish company's Indonesian subsidiary said, "This time we attracted far more military brass than before" to the Saab exhibit, including Gen. Moeldoko, commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces.

     European companies are playing catch-up with their U.S. and Russian counterparts, who have already delivered fighters to the Indonesian military. Leading aircraft maker Airbus group announced at Indo Defence that it had received orders for 11 AS565 military helicopters from the Indonesian military. The Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft, jointly developed by leading European defense and airline companies, attracted keen interest. A Eurofighter spokesperson revealed the alliance's strategy to combine technology transfers and local parts production to win the Indonesian military away from U.S. and Russian fighters.

     In a little corner of the Indo Defence venue, Japanese company Nippon Denki Sangyo (NDS) held a special gathering to present Japanese defense equipment and technology. The exhibit featured products of leading Japanese manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

     "We want to help connect the Japanese and Indonesian defense industries," said NDS President Hideki Iida. He is also an executive of Indonesian military and police equipment maker Garda Persada. NDS is a Japanese company, but it is majority owned by Garda Persada. It has been working as a low-profile agent for Japanese government and business now that Japan's three principles on arms exports were eased in April.

     At Indo Defence, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said that he will triple the nation's defense budget if economic growth reaches 7%. He made a public promise to increase Indonesia's defense budget from less than 1% of GDP now to 1.5% in five years. Corresponding figures for its neighbors are higher, at over 2% for Vietnam and around 1.5% for Thailand.

     In his grand vision of creating an Indonesian "maritime axis," Widodo plans to expedite upgrading the nation's capacity to defend its vast maritime areas and long coastlines. The nation currently has only two submarines. While financial difficulties persist, the government urgently needs to enhance its military and nurture its defense industry by bringing in equipment and technology from abroad.

     It is important to strengthen the Indonesian military to protect the nation's sovereignty over land, air and sea. Various territorial disputes in the South China Sea also involve Indonesia. China has included parts of the Natuna Islands archipelago within its so-called Nine-Dash Line, a vague boundary used on Chinese maps to lay claim to about 90% of the South China Sea, including territory claimed by other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The area off the northwest coast of Borneo is rich in oil, gas and fish.

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