JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — The militaries of the United States and Indonesia began annual joint combat exercises Wednesday on the Indonesian island of Sumatra that for the first time included participants from other partner countries, signaling stronger ties amid growing maritime activity in China in the Indo-Pacific region.
More than 5,000 troops from the US, Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Singapore participated in this year’s exercises, making them the largest since the exercises were established in 2009. The exercises are designed to enhance interoperability, capability, trust and cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific, the US Embassy in Jakarta said in a statement.
“It is a symbol of the US-Indonesia bond and the growing relationship between ground forces in this consequential region,” Gen. Charles Flynn, US Army Pacific Commander, said in the statement. “Because ground forces are the glue that holds the security architecture of the region together.”
Flynn and Indonesian Army Chief General Andika Perkasa opened the joint exercises with a ceremony Wednesday morning in Baturaja, a coastal city in South Sumatra province. The exercises will last until August 14 and will include army, navy, air force and marine exercises.
The planned two-week drills opened after China’s defense ministry said Tuesday night it would conduct a series of targeted military operations to “ensure national sovereignty” in response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the self-governing Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory to annex by force if necessary.
China is also increasingly assertive in its claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the number of intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships in the Pacific region with US forces and other partners has increased significantly over the past five years and the number of unsafe interactions increased in similar proportions.
“The message is that the Chinese military, in the air and at sea, has become much more and noticeably more aggressive in that area,” Milley said last month during a trip to the Indo-Pacific that included a stop in Indonesia.
Milley said Indonesia is strategically critical to the region and has long been a key US partner. Earlier this year, the US approved a $13.9 billion sale of advanced fighter jets to Indonesia. And in Jakarta last December, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed agreements for enhanced joint naval exercises between the US and Indonesia.
While Indonesia and China enjoy generally positive ties, Jakarta has expressed concern over Chinese encroachment on its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims almost entirely.
The US-Indonesia military drills coincided with Pelosi’s arrival in Taiwan late Tuesday, the highest-ranking US official in 25 years to visit the self-ruled island. Beijing views visits by foreign government officials as recognition of the island’s sovereignty.
Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force is taking part in the exercises for the first time, saying it promotes a “free and open” Indo-Pacific vision for security and trade with the US and other democracies in the region.
The expanded exercises are seen by China as a threat. Chinese state media has accused the US of building an Indo-Pacific alliance, similar to NATO, as a means of provoking deliberate conflict.