The Indonesian military, or Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), will not conduct any new joint military exercises in the South China Sea so as to reinforce the country's neutrality in territorial disputes, a top general has said.
"Indonesia has done its utmost to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea, and appealed to all parties not to engage in activities that may increase instability," TNI chief Gatot Nurmantyo said at a promotion ceremony at the army headquarters in Jakarta on Tuesday.
"As such, the TNI will not carry out military exercises with any other country in the South China Sea," he added.
General Gatot's remarks were released in a statement yesterday as the TNI marked the 71st anniversary of its founding in 1945.
He also raised concerns about the terrorist threat, particularly from Indonesians returning from the Middle East where they fought alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.
"Many Indonesian citizens are in Syria and among them are children who are being indoctrinated with false teachings, and then they return to Indonesia to commit acts of terrorism," he said.
Today, Indonesia will hold a major military exercise - Puncak Angkasa Yudha - in the Natuna Islands involving thousands of troops, including army paratroopers, as well as F-16 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets.
WORKING FOR PEACE
Indonesia has done its utmost to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea, and appealed to all parties not to engage in activities that may increase instability.
TNI CHIEF GATOT NURMANTYO
The Natunas are located near a part of the South China Sea that is the focus of overlapping claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
President Joko Widodo will be in Ranai, the capital of the Natunas, today to observe the exercise.
It will be his second visit to the city since China said in March that the waters off the Natunas are part of its traditional fishing grounds.
On his trip in June, Mr Joko was on board a warship, where he held a meeting with a small group of his ministers and military brass.
Jakarta has consistently maintained that it is not a party to the territorial disputes but remains concerned about Beijing's claim over its exclusive economic zone in the waters off the Natuna Islands.
Gen Gatot, responding to media questions yesterday, said Puncak Angkasa Yudha was "not to show force or to warn China".
"I will take it as a compliment if it's considered a show of force," he said.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called it a regular military exercise.
"This military training exercise is conducted by the Indonesian military in Indonesian territory, it's not in the South China Sea," she said.
Agreeing, Mr Iis Gindarsah, a researcher with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, said: "It is normal for a country to conduct military exercises on the border areas, that's called defence diplomacy."
Gen Gatot also said that while the TNI will not hold joint exercises in the South China Sea, those conducted with allies such as the United States and India in other parts of Indonesia will continue.
Indonesia is not known to have ever conducted military exercises in the South China Sea, according to Mr Iis and other experts whom The Straits Times spoke to yesterday.
But previous reports indicated that the TNI had held two joint exercises with the US in Batam, about 480km from the Natuna Islands.
A TNI spokesman had said at the time that the Indonesian navy had hoped to make the exercise a regular event.
Indonesia's military used to be a key player not just in national defence and internal security but also in socio-political affairs. But since the fall of then President Suharto in 1998, its role has been more circumscribed. Military personnel have been barred from voting in elections since 1955, a restriction Gen Gatot hopes will be lifted one day.
However, many lawmakers believe the military should remain politically neutral, The Jakarta Post said yesterday.
They believe that the right to vote could become a source of division in the armed forces since members would be free to vote for the candidate of their choice.
•Additional reporting by Francis Chan