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Indonesia Makes Waves: A New Maritime Policy Heralds a More Assertive Foreign Policy
By Brad Nelson, Yohanes Sulaiman

INDONESIAN President Joko Widodo has promised to double, if not triple, the country’s defense spending by 2019. A large part of this boost is aimed at making Indonesia a regional, and perhaps an international, leader in maritime affairs. During his campaign for the presidency, he christened the doctrine Global Maritime Axis (GMA), and now as president, Joko is looking to implement GMA by earmarking funds, creating a new maritime co-ordinating ministry, improving naval assets and fostering better collaboration between military branches, among other things.


The standard narrative both inside and outside Indonesia had been that Joko is uninterested in, and unknowledgeable about, foreign policy. Clearly, that’s not the case. The new president is quickly putting his stamp on Indonesian foreign policy, with GMA signaling a significant policy shift. The new foreign policy moves Indonesia from a relatively passive approach to regional and international affairs to a more assertive, even at times confrontational, one, a sharp contrast from the 10-year era of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.


Friends and enemies


The Joko administration plans to use vigorous and varied means to protect and secure Indonesian maritime interests, in the process Indonesia would no longer be unwilling or tentative about stepping on the toes of other countries. It does not, according to government officials, need to be friends with everyone, though it also does not seek to create enemies. Yudhoyono’s foreign policy was notable for seeking, as the former president said, “a million friends and zero enemies.” By contrast, Joko was quoted in the news media saying, “What’s the point of having many friends, but we only get the disadvantages?”


GMA aims to unlock Indonesia’s seafaring potential, much of it having to do with trade and finance. To this end, Joko wants to enhance Indonesia’s infrastructure, particularly its ports. He has allocated billions of dollars to expand the number of ports, strengthen their operational capabilities and improve their connectivity. The result is supposed to reduce logistics costs, make it easier to transfer goods and services around Indonesia, spur tourism and encourage more trade.


But the maritime policy also has much to do with the country’s national security. After all, Indonesia is an archipelagic nation; its contact with the outside world is primarily via waterways. On one level, Indonesian elites are troubled by foreign fishing fleets from a host of Asian nations illegally plundering Indonesian waters for fish and other resources. On another level, now that Indonesia is mostly past its messy and turbulent period post-1998 period, the major, existential security threats come via the seas, from foreign countries with competent offensive maritime capabilities. This national security component is only heightened given the broader Asian neighborhood, which is filled with increasingly nationalist countries with steadily improving power projection capabilities, some of which have longstanding maritime and territorial disputes and grievances with each other.


Quantitative and qualitative improvements in Indonesia’s maritime capabilities would mean that the country could defend its waters and resources from being infringed upon by outsiders. This would enable Indonesia to better monitor and patrol its territory and broader exclusive economic zone, placing it in a better position to ward off threats to sovereignty. In addition, by taking steps to improve Indonesian maritime defenses, the Joko administration is demonstrating that it is tough on national security, which usually plays well to domestic audiences, stimulating nationalism, thereby adding to his domestic political standing.


Leadership potential


Improvements in maritime capabilities would also allow Indonesia to more effectively leverage itself as the political leader that it aspires to be in Asia — in its bilateral relations, in multilateral settings and platforms, and within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A stronger Indonesia could more confidently and productively pursue its national interests and the interests of its friends and partners in Southeast Asia. Also, a more capable Indonesia could function better as a regional mediator on knotty issues like the various maritime disputes in the South China Sea.


A stronger Indonesia would be a country that nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines and China — the major parties involved in the current round of hostilities in the South China Sea — would likely take more seriously. That would be beneficial, considering that Joko has recently said he’d like to see Indonesia get more involved as a problem solver in the South China Sea.


In general, the history of regional and international powers tells us that possessing strong land and/or sea capabilities and resources does many things for such countries. Notably, they are respected, have a voice in the world and play a part in shaping the rules and norms of regional and world bodies. Indonesia wants to carve out a large niche for itself as a builder and shaper of mutually beneficial rules and norms. Should Indonesia manage to cultivate this enhanced status and position, it would be in a prime position to spread and entrench — via treaties and institutional mechanisms — its message of regional co-operation, stability and peace.


To an extent, some of this has already occurred, particularly through Indonesia’s role as a founder and leader of ASEAN, helping to establish norms of self-determination and conflict resolution throughout Southeast Asia. This is a commendable accomplishment, to be sure, but Joko wants to go further, starting with a stronger presence in maritime affairs — which would round out Indonesia’s political, diplomatic and economic power with matching clout and capabilities in military and defense affairs, creating balanced power across the consequential indicators of state power.


Line in the sea


Should Indonesia fulfill Joko’s goal of becoming a maritime power, we could very well observe a host of regional security implications, starting with the China factor. To begin, there are questions about whether China’s nine-dash line — its map of its maritime claims in the South China Sea — passes through parts of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Not only are the Natunas Indonesian possessions, but they are also rich in resources. The waters surrounding the Natunas are frequently illegally plundered by fishermen, including Chinese fishermen.


So far, China has not made a claim to the Natuna Islands, seemingly accepting that they are a part of Indonesia. Nevertheless, given its vague and ever-expanding nine-dash line, it’s possible — especially as its power and ambitions rise over time — that China might contest the islands in the future.


At this point, Indonesia’s official position is that there is no dispute with China over the Natuna Islands, and that it is not one of the five countries currently challenging China’s claims to the South China Sea. It is worth noting, however, that the Indonesian military issued strident statements over the Natunas in 2014, broaching the idea of sending more troops there to protect the islands — a not-so-subtle way of telling China to back off.


Under Joko’s administration, Indonesia seems to be willing to play hard ball. Michael Bachelard, an Australian journalist, said that when he asked Joko whether he would be strong on defending Indonesia’s sovereignty, Joko grinned and shot back, “stronger.” In fact, Joko demonstrated his position when he approved the burning and sinking of boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters, stressing that it was much-needed shock therapy to signal Indonesia’s seriousness in defending its territorial sovereignty and integrity from poachers.


These measures caught many of Indonesia’s neighbors off-guard, and many warned Indonesia that such harsh actions could raise tensions with fellow ASEAN members and hurt the development of an ASEAN community. Still, it is doubtful that the Joko administration will change the policy, because it’s widely popular among the Indonesian public. In addition, backtracking now could lead the political opposition, fairly or not, to accuse Joko of kowtowing to foreign pressure and neglecting to defend Indonesia’s territorial integrity, a common rhetorical device in Indonesian political debate.


For now, though, burning boats and ships engaged in illegal fishing is unlikely to bring Indonesia and China to loggerheads, simply because both Jakarta and Beijing realize that this is not a major issue worth ruining a good relationship. Beijing realizes that staying on Indonesia’s good side is simply a wise policy, given Indonesia’s abundance of natural resources, its position in Southeast Asia and its control of the strategically located Malacca Strait, which could do much harm to China’s international trade.


From Indonesia’s point of view, China is a great source of foreign investment, which Joko needs in order to help finance the upgrade and expansion of Indonesia’s deteriorating infrastructure. In fact, sources close to Joko have already noted that the president is very interested in attracting Chinese investment, in part because it can occur quickly and without strings attached, unlike investment from some other countries, such as the United States, which is often tied to human rights records or fair business practices. These add layers of red tape and delays that Joko wants to avoid because he is under pressure to show results as quickly as possible.


Long-term impact


In the long run, though, a nationalistic-oriented Indonesian foreign policy would set it on a collision course with China. A much stronger and more assertive Indonesia would likely be put into direct conflict with Beijing, which would not be a good thing. It would also undercut Indonesia’s ability to function as a neutral mediator in the South China Sea disputes; and that, by extension, could harm Indonesia’s position as a leader in ASEAN.


Of course, should that happen, the very foundation of contemporary Indonesian foreign policy — the idea that Indonesia is a free and independent country, a friend to all and an enemy to none — would be stressed to the breaking point. At the same time, a more assertive Indonesia would, in a sense, be beneficial to Japanese interests in containing what it perceives as China’s belligerence. Japan has long been influential in Southeast Asia as one of the biggest sources of foreign investment. Therefore, in spite of the memory of the Japanese military’s brutality during the Second World War, many nations in Southeast Asia prefer to let bygones be bygones, welcoming Japan’s much-needed investment.


In recent years, with the increasing belligerence of China, Japan has been more active diplomatically in the region. In fact, during the ASEAN summit in Myanmar in November 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized Japan’s intention to aid infrastructure development projects in the region, which is a priority of the Joko administration.


Indonesia in 2014 became Japan’s third-largest investment destination, behind Vietnam and Thailand. While this was partly the result of rising anti-Japanese sentiment in China that caused Japanese companies to move their investments elsewhere, it was also caused by Japan’s desire to expand co-operation in regional security and influence governments in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia.


This raises the idea of a potential Indonesia-Japan partnership that could actually bear fruit should Japan play its cards right. An assertive Indonesia could signal to China that Beijing’s current aggressive policy concerning its border regions is creating a major backlash, forcing China to recalibrate its foreign policy.


The only problem for Japan, though, is its current weak economy. Granted, China’s economy has been losing steam in recent years but Japan’s economy remains weak, despite Abenomics and structural reforms. This limits what Japan can spend in Southeast Asia.


Still, both China and Japan, and by extension, the United States, should realize that there’s a new game in town. Indonesia under Joko is pursuing a very pragmatic, realist foreign policy, with the aim of maximizing the gains that it receives from foreign relations, unlike Yudhoyono’s very idealistic foreign policy, which advocated building relations with any and all countries, irrespective of what Indonesia might gain from the relationship.


Should Joko successfully reform the notoriously difficult-to-reform bureaucracy, fix Indonesia’s decaying infrastructure and strengthen the country’s military capabilities, it is very likely that Indonesia would pursue a more active and nationalistic foreign policy that might well influence the balance of power in the South China Sea.


Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois. Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the National Defense College of Indonesia.



Back to Issue
    Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono once famously said the aim of Indonesia’s foreign policy is to have “a million friends and zero enemies.” The country’s new president, Joko Widodo, whom many at first thought had little interest in foreign affairs, startled many observers by announcing after he took office that he aims to double or even triple defense spending in a bid to make Indonesia a regional maritime power. But as Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman argue, that ambition could well put the country on a collision course with China in the South China Sea.  
    Published: March 2015 (Vol.10 No.1)
    About the author

    Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois.

    Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at Universitas Jendral Achmad Yani in Cimahi, Indonesia.

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