The reaction from Jakarta is instructive. Responding to the announcement, the Indonesian government said it shared Australia’s concern about growing instability in the region and stressed the need for peace, rather than military conflict, in the South China Sea.
Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto’s spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald “we understand Australia’s concern over the region’s stability and the Defence Ministry shares similar concerns about it”.
“Indonesia has been working hard [to ensure] that no military conflict is present in the South China Sea. And it hopes that all parties including China and the US [show] restraint and countries in the region jointly prevent military conflict”.
The Philippines and Malaysia have made low-key statements about the acquisition too, reflecting ASEAN nations’ aversion to conflict and interference in the affairs of other nations.
Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, an Indonesian PhD scholar at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, says Australia’s strategy will allow it to keep pace with China, Vietnam and Indonesia, all whom have some form of long-range missile systems.
“It’s an action-reaction cycle going on here and Australia is just jumping on the bandwagon and trying to keep pace with regional developments,” he said.
“The question will be where they [the Super Hornet planes that carry the missiles] are based – in Australia, or in Malaysia and Singapore too? And in what scenarios will these missile systems be deployed? These are the pertinent questions, rather than the possession of the missiles themselves.”
The head of the ANU’s National Security College, Rory Medcalf, said the “modest extension of the range” of strategic strike abilities allowed Australia to keep pace with a rapidly evolving strategic environment and was unlikely to upset neighbouring countries.
“Other middle powers like Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore are likely to welcome Australia being a more credible security partner and that’s what this capability gives us, just as we would welcome them building up their capabilities.”
Indonesia is not a claimant state to islands in the South China Sea but China claims part of Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea, which overlaps with the South China Sea as part of its so-called nine-dash line claim to about 80 per cent of the waters.
In recent months, Chinese Coast Guard vessels and fishing fleets have provocatively ventured into Indonesian waters, harassed a Malaysian oil exploration vessel and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea.
Indonesia – like other countries in the region – is heavily dependent on trade with China.
So no nation is going to shout from the rooftops that they welcome Australia’s increased military capabilities — a whispered “thank you” is more likely — lest they anger their key trading partner.
But as Defence Minister Linda Reynolds observed on Thursday “so far the response from regional partners has been incredibly strong”.
That’s because for all the attempts by United States defence establishment to project reliability and continuity in uncertain times, it hasn’t escaped any country’s notice that under the mercurial President Donald Trump, policy setting can flip 180 degrees in the time it takes to tap out a 280-character tweet.
Between an unreliable US and an increasingly bellicose China, the middle powers of south-east Asia increasingly confront the reality that they must band more tightly together to have any chance of shaping the region.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.