Include major players in Asean military meetings: Indonesia

INDONESIA'S armed forces commander has proposed that annual meetings of Asean military top brass be expanded to include their counterparts from key players such as the United States and China, to better manage regional tensions.

General Moeldoko told The Straits Times in an interview on Tuesday that he had surfaced the idea at their latest meeting in Naypyidaw this month, and hoped the annual Asean Chiefs of Defence Forces Informal Meeting (ACDFIM) could also see an ACDFIM-Plus soon.

Asean countries, he noted, were trying to reach an agreement with Beijing on a code of conduct that sets down rules of engagement amid overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

"How can a code of conduct be implemented well if, among claimant countries, there are no intensive meetings?" he said.

Asean defence chiefs have been meeting regularly since 2001, and Gen Moeldoko feels it is time for such close high-level contact to involve the grouping's major partners, which also include Australia, Japan and India.

Recent incidents like the ongoing search and recovery effort for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and the response to Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year showed how greater coordination among regional militaries was critical, he added.

Gen Moeldoko's comments come a month after he made a high-profile visit to China to boost defence ties, where he also said Indonesia would beef up its troop deployment in the Natuna Islands to better guard against instability in the South China Sea.

This Saturday, Indonesia is hosting a six-day multilateral disaster relief exercise in the waters off the Natunas that will involve 17 navies, including those of China, the US and Russia.

Indonesian officials have raised concerns that China's so-called "nine-dashed-line" claim to almost all of the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesia's exclusive economic zone that extends to waters off the Natunas.

Asked about the significance of the build-up and exercise there, Gen Moeldoko said: "If something happens in that area, the spillover is bound to affect Indonesia. All Asean defence chiefs have also agreed to strengthen cooperation among ourselves. We don't want anything untoward to happen."

Indonesia, he stressed, remained committed to the principle of neutrality, and he sought to impress this on his interlocutors in his recent meetings.

For instance, when he met US Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Harry Harris in Jakarta last week, he told the latter that while Indonesia understood the US rebalancing to the region, the US should be careful not to stoke tensions there.

Likewise, he told his Chinese counterparts in Beijing that he did not want another Cold War in the South China Sea. "This was clear: There should not be a second Cold War," he said.

zakirh@sph.com.sg