Indonesia: A Potential Leader in the Indian Ocean
Image Credit: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Indonesia: A Potential Leader in the Indian Ocean


On his recent trips to the APEC, ASEAN and G20 summits, Indonesian President Joko Widodo spoke of how he saw Indonesia’s role as a “global maritime axis.” Recognizing Indonesia’s status as the world’s largest archipelagic state and its location at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific oceans, Widodo emphasized the importance of making Indonesia’s strategic maritime position the cornerstone of foreign policy. This new policy raises an interesting question: How will Indonesia define its position in Indian Ocean, given its role as next year’s chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

For decades the main focus of Indonesia’s diplomacy has been ASEAN and its northern region. This makes sense, particularly given close economic times between Indonesia and countries in East Asia (both Northeast and Southeast). Now, with his maritime vision, Widodo intends to expand Indonesia’s active diplomatic presence from merely ASEAN-centric to the broader Indo-Pacific arena.

But if it is to play an effective and constructive role, Indonesia will need to carefully understand the Indian Ocean region and be clear on what it actually could contribute.

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Underdeveloped Regional Architecture

The Indian Ocean is growing in strategic and economic importance. Approximately 20 percent of global sea trade is carried through its waters. A recent study by the French Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea revealed that ship traffic in the Indian Ocean has grown by more than 300 percent over the last twenty years. Understanding the strategic significance of the Indian Ocean, its littoral and island states have been taking steps to bolster their naval capabilities.

As a result, the Indian Ocean is now home to some of the world’s largest defense budgets. For instance, India allocated $5.8 billion on modernizing and expanding its navy in 2014, becoming the largest spender in the Indian Ocean region. Among other purposes, the money was used to complete its aircraft carrier Vikrant and activate the reactor aboard the Arihant.

Meanwhile, China was heavily involved in the construction of ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Seychelles and Maldives. Although Chinese officials were at pains to insist that these ports are being built entirely for commercial purposes, the growing Chinese military contacts and economic assistance in the region has raised questions about its long-term naval ambitions for the Indian Ocean.

The naval buildup in the Indian Ocean itself raises security questions. However, the situation is further complicated by other persistent issues, such as piracy (particularly off the coast of Somalia), the existence of states that are non-signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the unclear future of the U.S. military power projection from Diego Garcia. These increasingly complex security challenges are unfortunately not being well managed.

The regional architecture in the Pacific region provides a contrast. Certainly, there are ongoing disputes in East Asia, with tensions in the South China Sea and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, but a phalanx of multilateral forums, from ASEAN and its “plus” schemes to APEC, offer a strong basis for the countries of East Asia to cooperate and uphold the common interest.

In the Indian Ocean region, however, the regional security architecture is underdeveloped. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) consistently stumbles on India-Pakistan rivalry. This leaves the IORA, previously the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), as the only pan-regional forum with the potential to manage complex relations in the Indian Ocean.

Recent years have seen some efforts to strengthen the IORA. As the current chair, Australia has proposed economic cooperation initiatives, such as IORA Business Week and an economic declaration, setting up a fund of $1 million to boost economic activities in the Indian Ocean region. More importantly, IORA has begun to recognize maritime security as one of its main priorities, as revealed at the 13th IORA’s Meeting of the Council of Ministers (MCM) in Perth last month.

These positive developments notwithstanding, IORA’s progress has been modest. It faces at least three main challenges. First, the IORA is not yet an effective institution. It was designed as an ambitious grouping with interest in too many complex areas, including maritime security, trade and investment, fisheries management, cultural exchange, and many more. Since its establishment in 1997 it has been unable to effectively cover these areas. Economic cooperation initiatives and people-to-people links within the IORA framework are still very limited, albeit with some small improvements of late.

Second, the Indian Ocean lacks a regional identity and is plagued by considerable distrust. The distinct differences among the states that span a vast area from Australia to South Africa make it difficult for the IORA to define any common interest. Limited security cooperation and joint exercises are not enough to address the fragile balance of power. True, there have been some security cooperation initiatives beyond the IORA, such as Milan and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), but those arrangements are focused on operational matters, are had little to do with policy and strategy. More importantly, the current initiatives do not effectively accommodate external powers. China, the United States and a few other nations have become IORA dialogue partners, but the current arrangements give them little scope to play constructive roles.

Finally, the Indian Ocean rim lacks the political will to set up an effective regional institution. The highest-level meeting help by the IORA at present is a council of foreign ministers; there is as yet not summit of heads of government. The various IORA working groups are handled by senior officials or at even more junior levels. Security meetings involve the chiefs of navies, not defense ministers.

A Role for Indonesia

Clearly, to avoid a runaway rivalry for regional power and influence, greater efforts to maintain regional stability in the Indian Ocean are needed. And it is here that Indonesia could play a role, helping to strengthen the IORA and turn it into a respected, mature regional forum.

Widely recognized as a longstanding proponent of regionalism in East Asia, Indonesia is well placed to encourage the same in the Indian Ocean. As the primus inter pares in ASEAN, Indonesia has sought to promote norms by initiating a significant number of ASEAN documents, such as the ASEAN Charter. One important Indonesian legacy in ASEAN is the Treaty of Amity of Cooperation (TAC), which became a central element for promoting peace and cooperation. Together with other ASEAN countries, Indonesia also successfully included the major powers in the Pacific in the East Asia Summit (EAS), which is anchored by ASEAN. Moreover, in the Indian Ocean, Indonesia has no conflict with any other state. In cooperation with Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia even offers an example of trilateral security cooperation through the Malacca Strait Sea Patrol.

For its two-year chairmanship of the IORA, which will commence less than one year from now, there are at least five main reforms Indonesia could consider. First, to conceptually carve out shared interests and norms, Indonesia could propose a TAC-like treaty for the IORA. An Indian Ocean treaty of friendship and cooperation could build trust and attenuate suspicions. The current IORA charter only addresses the economic objectives of the association, and does not cover the increasingly pivotal security and safety elements.

Second, Indonesia could propose that the peak IORA decision-making body be elevated from the council of foreign ministers to the summit level. This would be an important step in encouraging political will among IORA members. With a regular summit, IORA will move from the project-by-project agenda it has pursued for years, to a more systematic and structured strategic focus. Meanwhile, there should be more meetings at the ministerial level, including between IORA defense ministers. A defense ministers forum would be crucial to address security issues more comprehensively and to facilitate confidence building measures among IORA members.

Third, Indonesia could help accelerate the ascension of Myanmar, Maldives, and even Somalia to IORA membership. It could also approach Pakistan, which is currently not an IORA member despite its status as a littoral state. The more inclusive IORA becomes, the more legitimacy it has to build trust within the region.

Fourth, IORA should be more effective at bringing its dialogue partners into its broader cooperation projects. It is vital that external powers do not feel marginalized from any initiatives and processes in IORA. Dialogue partners should be encouraged to participate in IORA projects, including policy-setting and security dialogues. A formal meeting between IORA and its dialogue partners could be modeled after the EAS, where EAS leaders usually meet for one day directly after ASEAN leaders conclude a two-day summit.

Finally, Indonesia could develop an action plan for both the short and long terms, so that the IORA has better tools and guidelines to monitor the effectiveness of its cooperation projects. The association needs to define tangible outcomes that could be achieved within a certain timeframe. Learning from ASEAN, which define its objectives in the three pillars of the ASEAN Community, IORA could select a limited number of priorities with clear purposes and instruments, instead of working on wildly ambitious but hollow commitments.

If Indonesia intends to reinvigorate IORA, it needs to start preparing to do so now. One particularly urgent task is setting up a research institute/think tank, focusing specifically on Indian Ocean issues, which Indonesia currently lacks. This institution could play a crucial role as a leading actor in Track II diplomacy and give the Indonesian government better outreach on IORA projects both domestically and internationally.

Indonesia has the potential to influence the direction and shape the dynamic of the Indian Ocean region. Referring to its diplomatic eloquence in the Southeast Asia and Pacific regions, Indonesia could constructively remake IORA as the premier regional forum for cooperation. 

Awidya Santikajaya is a PhD candidate at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, The Australian National University.

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