Indonesia this year rejected a proposal by the US to allow its P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance planes to land and refuel there, four senior Indonesian officials familiar with the matter have said.
US officials made multiple “high-level” approaches in July and August to Indonesia’s defense and foreign ministers before Indonesian President Joko Widodo rebuffed the request, the officials said.
Representatives for Indonesia’s president and defense minister, the US Department of State’s Office of Press Relations and the US embassy in Jakarta did not respond to requests for comment.
Representatives for the US Department of Defense and Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi declined to comment.
The proposition, which came as the US and China escalated their contest for influence in Southeast Asia, surprised the Indonesian government, the officials said, because Indonesia has a longstanding policy of neutrality on foreign affairs.
The country has never allowed foreign militaries to operate there.
The P-8 plays a central role in keeping an eye on China’s military activity in the South China Sea, most of which Beijing claims as sovereign territory.
Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have rival claims to the resource-rich waters, through which US$3 trillion of trade passes each year.
Indonesia is not a formal claimant in the strategically important waterway, but considers a portion of the South China Sea as its own.
It has regularly repelled Chinese coastguard vessels and fishing boats from an area to which Beijing says it has a historic claim.
However, the country has growing economic and investment links with China and it does not want to take sides in the conflict.
It is alarmed by growing tensions between the two superpowers and by the militarization of the South China Sea, Retno said.
“We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry,” Retno said in an interview early last month. “Indonesia wants to show all that we are ready to be your partner.”
The P-8, with its advanced radar, high-definition cameras and acoustic sensors, has been mapping the islands, surface and underwater realms of the South China Sea for at least six years.
When carrying sonobuoys and missiles, the planes can detect and attack ships and submarines from long range. It also has systems that allow it to control drones.
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