Indonesia, Malaysia strengthen ties to defend territorial sovereignty

Indonesia, Malaysia strengthen ties to defend territorial sovereignty

Tom Abke

With Beijing’s South China Sea operations encroaching upon the territorial sovereignty of Malaysia and Indonesia in recent months, the neighboring nations are reaffirming their deep defense ties.

“Malaysia-Indonesia defense relations are close and long-standing,” Shahriman Lockman, foreign policy and security studies fellow at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, told FORUM. “There’s no denying that the relationship has a lot going for it. Malaysia is a user of Indonesian-made defense equipment, mostly notably the CN-235s [military transport aircraft]. There’s also regular contact between the two Armed Forces, including through the annual General Border Committee (GBC) meetings.”

The GBC meetings, held each year since 1972, function as a platform to strengthen diplomatic relations between the countries and to formulate security strategy, particularly at the border, reported Malaysia’s Ministry of Defence. (Pictured: Soldiers from Indonesia and Malaysia assemble at the Gabma Seliku joint border post in Malaysia.)

Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, via videoconference June 16, 2020, held “an open and wide-ranging discussion that reflected the strength of the relationship,” according to a statement from Yaakob’s ministry.

GBC meetings and subregional initiatives that include the Malacca Strait Patrol and the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement, which also involves the Philippines, enhance the relationship, the statement said.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic poses challenges, the ministers said their governments are committed to strengthening bilateral security and increasing cooperation based on common interests.

Prabowo congratulated Yaakob on his March 2020 appointment as Malaysia’s defense minister. Yaakob took on the title when his country’s National Alliance coalition formed a national government.

Both countries were affected by Beijing’s “aggressive operations” in the South China Sea in the first half of 2020, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reported in June 2020. In April, Chinese vessels harassed an oil-drilling ship commissioned by Kuala Lumpur to operate off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state. Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing fleets repeatedly entered Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands in early January, according to AMTI.

The push to strengthen defense ties comes from the highest levels of government. Prabowo said in November 2019 that Indonesian President Joko Widodo had given him a mandate to ensure that dynamic, bilateral defense ties with Malaysia remain a top priority, according to Malaysia’s New Straits Times newspaper.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.