Sub salvage mission brings Jakarta, Beijing closer

Sub salvage mission brings Jakarta, Beijing closer

An Indonesian military personnel displays a clip showing the wreckage of the sunken Indonesian Navy KRI Nanggala-402 submarine on April 25. REUTERS
An Indonesian military personnel displays a clip showing the wreckage of the sunken Indonesian Navy KRI Nanggala-402 submarine on April 25. REUTERS

Amid the uncertainties surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia was deeply saddened by the sinking of KRI Nanggala 402 last month. On April 21, the Indonesian Navy submarine sunk off the coast of Bali after losing contact shortly after it was authorised to begin its operation. All 53 crew perished in the incident.

Despite rampant speculation around what might have caused the sinking of KRI Nanggala 402, Indonesian authorities confirmed that natural factors contributed to the accident.

Before the sunken sub was located, Australia, India and Singapore helped Indonesian authorities locate the whereabouts of the submarine. Attempts to locate the submarine were initially hampered by the depth and difficult undersea terrain, but ultimately the wreckage was found at a depth of over 800 metres.

While the submarine has been found, salvaging the wreckage -- which has broken up into three parts -- remains a difficult task. It will require advanced technology which the state simply doesn't have, so foreign assistance is needed once again.

Soon after the submarine's location was found, the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta offered the government assistance to salvage the sunken submarine -- an offer which was quickly welcomed by Indonesian authorities.

Currently, there are three Chinese naval vessels assisting in the operation, Tan Suo 2, Nantuo-195, and Yongxungdao-863. Australia, India and Singapore, which had helped initial attempts to locate the ship, later confirmed that they were no longer involved in the evacuation of KRI Nanggala 402, making China the only foreign country assisting Indonesia in salvaging the sunken sub.

Indeed, the Indonesian government is thankful for China's assistance in the mission. China is currently the second-biggest investor in Indonesia, with investments valued at around US$4.74 billion (148.7 billion baht).

That said, the aid was not without controversy, as many Indonesians still perceive China as a threat to their country.

According to a survey by Lingkaran Survey Indonesia last year, there was a significant rise in negative perceptions of China among Indonesians -- from 19% of respondents in 2019 to 34% last year. The jump can be explained by China's hostile position in the South China Sea (which Jakarta refers to as the North Natuna Sea), its repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and the continued influx of Chinese workers into the country despite the pandemic.

Despite the growing negative sentiment, Indonesia has reaffirmed its neutrality in the US-China rivalry in the region and its desire to stay in the middle without leaning towards Beijing or Washington.

China's assistance in KRI Nanggala 402's salvage operation can be seen as diplomatic gesture from Beijing to lure Jakarta closer to its orbit amid the increasing superpower rivalry in the region.

While the assistance is technical in nature, and doesn't necessarily mean Jakarta is favouring one side over the other, it should have been accepted with more caution as it might have geopolitical implications for Indonesia -- especially since over the past few years, Indonesia has clashed with China over the demarcation of the North Natuna Sea, which Indonesia considers its sovereign territory.

It is therefore very important for the Indonesian government not to allow the assistance to affect its strong diplomatic and security position in the North Natuna Sea.

Even before the KRI Nanggala 402 accident, China has been strengthening its diplomatic efforts in the region, including through its vaccine diplomacy with Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. China was the first country that Indonesia's Foreign Affairs Minister turned to for vaccines, its assistance in the salvage operation is sure to bring Jakarta even closer to Beijing.

Having said that, Indonesia should appreciate China's assistance in the salvaging of the KRI Nanggala 402, as surely it will improve bilateral relationship with Beijing.

However, considering the ups and downs of Jakarta and Beijing's relationship, this should not affect Indonesia's position regarding the North Natuna Sea or other important security concern, where Beijing is concerned.

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a lecturer in International Law at the University of Indonesia and Young Leader at the Honolulu based Pacific Forum Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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