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JAKARTA: Indonesia and the US on Wednesday launched their biggest-ever joint military exercises, and were joined for the first time by troops from partner nations in what commanders said is a move to strengthen unity in the Indo-Pacific region.

The “Super Garuda Shield” exercises, which were first held in 2007 with only Indonesian and US troops involved, have expanded to include 12 other countries this year.

Defense forces from Australia, Japan and Singapore are taking part in the drills, while India, France and the UK are sending observers.

More than 5,000 soldiers are involved in the two-week exercises in East Kalimantan, South Sumatra and Riau Islands that are aimed at increasing joint military effectiveness, the Indonesian military said in a statement.

“We hope the exercises will go smoothly and everyone can deepen their bonds and interactions, so that this friendship will go on even after our exercises conclude and might be helpful in the future,” Indonesia’s military chief Gen. Andika Perkasa said at the opening ceremony in Baturaja, South Sumatra, on Wednesday.

Although the joint combat exercises are taking place amid increasing Chinese maritime activity in the region, particularly in the disputed South China Sea, Perkasa told reporters that the drills should not be seen as a response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

“We have been conducting these exercises annually, in whatever situation,” he said. “What creates peace in our region is not (military) might but the bonds that we share by working together regularly, exercising, getting used to meeting one another as neighbors — that’s what makes us stronger.”

Commanding General of US Army Pacific, Gen. Charles Flynn, said that this year’s Garuda Shield is an expression of  “unity” as a group of countries “seek to continue to have a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

He added: “When we’re together like this, we’re stronger. When we’re working together, we become better joint partners.”

The Indonesia-US military exercises coincided with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as the highest-ranking American official in 25 years to visit the self-ruled island. Beijing described the visit as “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs” amid fresh tensions in the region.

The joint military drills signal Indonesia’s position on balancing engagement with major powers, Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma, a researcher from the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Arab News.

“It’s strategically timely, although likely not exactly on purpose, in that it is conducted around dynamics like China’s possible increased assertiveness around the Taiwanese strait,” Kharisma said.

“Of course, the signal is not necessarily straight about deterring China, but more about that Indonesia also has ties with other powers,” he said.

“We are not leaning toward any power in particular and stand on our own interest to preserve regional peace.”

Ahmad Rizky Mardhatillah Umar, an Indonesian international relations researcher at the University of Queensland, Australia, said that the expansion of Garuda Shield this year reflects a common interest among participants to address any potential crisis and security challenges.

The joint military drills are part of Indonesia’s attempts to involve itself in maintaining regional security and defense diplomacy efforts, Umar said.

“We need to acknowledge that regional security threat is not only about China and its expansive maritime territorial claim, but also non-traditional security threats like terrorism.”

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