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JAKARTA: Indonesia and the United States kicked off their largest joint military exercises on Wednesday and were joined for the first time by troops from partner nations in what commanders said was a move to build unity in the Indo-Pacific region.

The “Super Garuda Shield” drills, which first took place 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 exercises, while India, France and the UK are sending observers.

More than 5,000 troops are taking part in two-week drills in East Kalimantan, South Sumatra and the Riau Islands that aim to increase joint military effectiveness, the Indonesian military said in a statement.

“We hope that the exercises will go smoothly and that everyone can deepen their bonds and interactions, so that this friendship will continue even after our exercises are over and can be useful in the future,” said the Indonesian military leader. , General Andika Perkasa, during the opening ceremony. in Baturaja, South Sumatra, on Wednesday.

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

“We conduct these exercises every year, regardless of the situation,” he said. “What creates peace in our region is not (military) strength but the bonds we share through working together regularly, exercising, getting used to meeting as neighbors – it’s what makes us stronger.”

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

He added: “When we are together like this, we are stronger. When we work together, we become better mutual partners.

The military drills between Indonesia and the United States coincided with the visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the highest-ranking US official in 25 years to visit the self-governing island. Beijing described the visit as “a blatant interference in China’s internal affairs” amid renewed tensions in the region.

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

“It is strategically timely, although probably not exactly on purpose, in that it is conducted around dynamics such as China’s possible increased assertiveness around the Taiwan Strait,” Kharisma said.

“Of course, the signal is not necessarily clear about deterrence from China, but more about the fact that Indonesia has ties with other powers as well,” he said.

“We do not lean towards any particular power and defend our own interest in preserving regional peace.”

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

The joint military exercises are part of Indonesia’s attempts to get involved in maintaining regional security and defense diplomacy efforts, Umar said.

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

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