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US and Indonesia start work on maritime centre at Malacca Strait amid frictions with China

US and Indonesia to jointly build maritime centre at Batam (Photo: Google Maps)

Indonesia and the US have started work on a new $3.5 million maritime training centre in the strategic area of Batam, in the Riau Islands, according to Indonesia's Maritime Security Agency–Bakamla.

US ambassador to Indonesia, Sung Kim, said that the maritime centre would be part of ongoing efforts between the two countries to bolster security in the South East Asian region–hotly contested by numerous countries due to Chinese claims in the region.

"As a friend and partner to Indonesia, the United States remains committed to supporting Indonesia's important role in maintaining regional peace and security by fighting domestic and transnational crimes," the US ambassador said.

The setting up of the centre also reinforces that the US is keen to support allies in the region as well as keep tabs on China. For Indonesia it means that it will have access to improving the training for its personnel and strengthen its maritime position in the region. 

A Middle Power, Indonesia, by reasons of geography, is a natural maritime player. It is the natural guardian of four major world shipping lanes.

Also Read: Indonesia's plan to expand submarine fleet has China, Indo-Pacific, written all over it

Analysts say that the Indonesian archipelago hosts at least four major choke points, which can be leveraged to counter Beijing, as some of them are critical for China's seaborne trade.

Foremost among these channels is the Malacca strait — the crucial and shortest trade link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This strait is a narrow, 890 km stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The vast majority of China's oil imports, from the Gulf, Venezuela and Angola, passes through this route, which is also the lifeline for Japan and South Korea — the other major industrial economies of the region.

Indonesia also hosts the Sunda Strait — the channel between the islands of Sumatra and Java. It is an important waterway for ships travelling along the Cape route in Africa to East Asia. Australian vessels setting course to destination in Southeast or East Asia, also make active use of this passage.

The third channel, the Lombok Strait, also a part of the Indonesian archipelago, is deep and wide. It is therefore ideal for transiting huge oil tankers and other monster ships with 100,000 dead weight tonnage or more.

Also Read: India, Indonesia discuss joint patrols in Malacca straits to advance defence and maritime ties

The Ombai-Wetar Straits, also in Indonesia, play a unique military role. Because they are extremely deep, they provide undetected passage for submarines traveling between the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Consequently, there is considerable interest in these straits among the strategic communities of the Indo-Pacific countries, who are wary of the transit of Chinese submarines from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. 

The maritime training center, located at the meeting point of the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea (SCS), will be run by Bakamla and will have classrooms, barracks and a launch pad. The centre is well placed strategically. Batam is the main island in Riau Islands, close to Singapore and is a veritable chokepoint for the trillions of dollars of trade that sails through the area.

The US collaboration with the world's largest archipelagic nation comes amid rising tensions in the SCS, with the Philippines protesting the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels in the Spratly islands this May and Vietnam increasing its maritime militia in response to rising Chinese maritime militia presence.

China has been in conflict with almost half-a-dozen countries including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as it lays aggressive claims to the entire SCS. It has built artificial islands in the seas as it battles for control over the abundant fisheries and energy resources in the area.