Indonesian Government Warns Against Nukes in SE Asia – But Military Increasingly Hosts Western Nuclear-Capable Assets

Ahead of a two-day summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the second week of July, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised the alarm regarding deployments of nuclear weapons in the region which she stressed placed regional countries at significant risk. Marsudi joined a growing number of official voices across Southeast Asia pressing for a treaty to ban the presence of nuclear weapons. “We cannot be truly safe with nuclear weapons in our region,” she told fellow her counterparts in ASEAN, stressing that “with nuclear weapons, we are only one miscalculation away from apocalypse and global catastrophe.” While in 1995, ASEAN states signed a treaty committing to make Southeast Asia a nuclear weapon free zone, so far only China appears to have been willing to sign this treaty among nuclear weapons states. Concerns have grown in Indonesia and across the region since the United States, Australia and Britain formed the AUKUS partnership in 2021 which would facilitate the transfer of nuclear attack submarines to the Royal Australian Navy. The first stage in this transfer will be the sale of three American Virginia Class submarines. This has been widely speculated to potentially be followed by a nuclear weapons sharing agreement between Washington and Canberra which would allow Australian submarine launched cruise missiles and F-35 fighters to receive nuclear warheads in wartime – with these being stored on Australian territory under American control in peacetime. 

While the Indonesian government has maintained relatively positive relations with China, and pushed back against possible Western efforts to militarise the region including persistently refusing American requests for air bases, the Indonesian Military has taken significant steps in the opposite direction. This has recently included hosting American B-52H intercontinental range strategic bombers, which are considered the most potent part of the air arm of the American nuclear triad and field very long ranged nuclear tipped cruise missiles. The Indonesian Air Force is also set to host Royal Australian Air Force F-35 fighters for joint exercises on Indonesian soil in September, with the stealth fighters being an optimal nuclear delivery asset and a key part of nuclear sharing agreements between the United States and its European allies. As Australia’s F-35 fleet continues to grow, and as the United States continues to enhance its nuclear capable bomber fleet in East Asia, it is expected that these assets will continue to be hosted on Indonesian soil despite Jakarta’s protests. Should Australia and the U.S. enter a nuclear sharing agreement the F-35, alongside the Virginia Class submarines, is expected to be a leading candidate to deliver Australian warheads.