Nuclear Down Under, What Now, Indonesia?

Editorial Omong-Omong

4 min read

In 18 months Australia will begin to acquire or develop at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines as part of efforts by newly-established defense alliance, AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States), to check China’s growing presence and influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In a move that will definitely force Indonesia and others in the region to react and do counter reaction, US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australia Prime Minister Morrison last Thursday jointly announced the landmark security partnership, which will also allow Australia to acquire long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US beside the nuclear submarines.

This move is extraordinary to say the least as Britain is the only other country the US has ever helped to build a nuclear fleet.

While this nuclear submarine purchase will surely spark arm races as Indonesia and Malaysia warned subsequently, the much starker reality for Indonesia, which shares border with Australia, is that its southern neighbor will possess nuclear technology which can be easily turned into nuclear weapon because these subs are powered with the same uranium enriched ingredients that is used in bombs.

Morrison, however, quickly guaranteed that Australia has no intention of turning the technology into weapons, while Biden and Johnson also stressed Australia would not be fielding nuclear weapons but using nuclear propulsion systems for the vessels to guard against threats.

Australia is a party to all relevant nuclear nonproliferation treaties and international export control regimes. Australia ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1973 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1998.

Indonesia know better that even with all promises and treaties, Australia can’t be fully trusted, if can be trusted at all.

Indonesia has dealt with Australia long enough to know how unpredictable its neighbor could be, or willing their politicians to do anything to get elected, or how willing its leaders to serve what they claimed as national interests, that any Australia’s commitment can only be trusted so much.

We should only look to its treatment against France, who is considered a close ally by Australia, when their deal on traditional submarine purchase, was just scrapped when the US and UK came knocking its door offering nuclear subs.

Australian leaders could argue any day that it was on behalf of their national interests and that they have informed France upfront. But the fact that France felt betrayed and was so angry that it withdrew its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington respectively showed how Australia have been treating a friend.

Indonesia, especially its military leadership, surely never forget how Australia behaved on years leading to the independence of East Timor. After playing as one of main supporters of Indonesia’s annexing East Timor, suddenly Australia become a hero of humanity and just arrogantly disregard Indonesia in playing a sheriff role in the conflict.

And does Australia just consider Indonesia that naïve that such purchase of nuclear submarines could threaten to breach the Lombok Treaty, which has been considered by leaders from both nations as the bedrock for their defense and security relations.

As of now Australia has not breached any of its commitments with its purchase of these nuclear submarines because there is a loophole of allowing transfer of nuclear technology in the purchase of nuclear-propelled subs, and it will take more than a decade for Australia to be able to declare themselves as a nuclear nation.

But Indonesia must consider the worst case scenario of Australia possessing nuclear weapons, and should consider actions accordingly.

Australia having nuclear submarines have put Indonesia in the disadvantage situation, and become much inferior to its neighbor. This situation should prompt Indonesia to boost its military capability. With having only three conventional submarines after the sinking of one of its submarines recently, Indonesia can cope with Australia. Indonesia has planned to add its submarines to 12 vessels now.

However, the scenario of Australia having nuclear arsenals will change everything and will have a grave consequence for Indonesia.

First, a nation having nuclear weapons or perceived to have one will be a game changer in which it has an ultimate deterrence against any attacks, especially from non-nuclear states. Nuclear country can dictate its terms in various fields, if it wants, by using its nuclear arsenals as a stick or threat.

What if leaders of Australia think that it is in Australia’s national interests and public demand that West Papua should be free from Indonesia? In doing so, Canberra can help Papuans to have vote for self-determination. What can Indonesia do? Once Australia possesses nuclear weapons Indonesia will lose all its deterrence power to prevent Australia from messing up with its internal affairs. Indonesia loses its threat to use conventional military might to attack Australia because its neighbor can only show that it has power to destroy, for instance, Jakarta, Surabaya and its other big cities in a blink of an eye.

That’s why the US, for instance, can’t just attack North Korea at will, and instead trying to appease Kim Jong-ill, because of grave possibilities that its perceived nuclear weapons can be launched, destroying Japan or any other US allies nearby, or even reaching Guam and its other territories.

In other words, Australia with nuclear weapons in its possession can do whatever it wants without any Indonesia can do about it.

Another destructive consequence out of Australia having nuclear weapons is nuclear proliferation, and the death of ASEAN’s nuclear-free zone regime (SEANWFZ), which has for long have kept the region stable, and even ASEAN as we know it, with other nations also pursuing the nuclear arsenals. Imagine having to live in a region with an imagination of a nuclear war to be always a possibility.

Realizing this grave impacts, the inactivity or staying put for Indonesia is not an option. So, what choices does Indonesia have before Australia possesses nuclear weapons?

The first choice is of course diplomatic efforts in which Indonesia in the next 18 months can persuade Australia to abandon the purchase, or at least pushing for strict arrangement to allow international community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to oversee Australia’s behavior to prevent it from having nuclear weapons, just like international community have done on Iran, for instance.

The second choice, which should be the very last resort, is Indonesia must open to any possibilities, including starting to prepare to acquire similar capabilities. Indonesian military must have analyzed Australia’s threat with possibility of it having nuclear arsenal, and what Indonesia can do to balance the suddenly unequal condition.

With hawkish like Prabowo Subianto, a former general and politician aiming at presidency in 2024 election, as a defense chief with possible intention to exploit the situation for political gain, and many other generals circling President Joko Widodo, it is not a fringe possibility that Indonesia can acquire nuclear technology and weapons if they see no other alternatives to save Indonesia being bullied and dictated by foreign powers.

If Indonesia entered this uncharted path, then the region will turn into a hostile region with a threat of nuclear war can happen anytime. But a close look at India-Pakistan rivalry, having equal nuclear power will actually prevent war from happening as it can only destroy both nations.

If the Western powers don’t want to provide Indonesia with nuclear technology, then it will force Indonesia’s hands to ask helps from China, the only other powers big enough to help Indonesia with its nuclear technology, and by then we can welcome a new cold war, full of deception and proxy wars and conflicts.

In final conclusion, Australia’s move to acquire nuclear submarines will create insecurity not only for the region, but only for itself. This will only push Indonesia — a nation seriously trying to be as neutral as possible in US-China rivalry — closer to China, or even become close China’s ally to match Australia’s nuclear capability.


Editorial Omong-Omong

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