Indonesia’s New Military Commands: A South China Sea Focus?
Image Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

Indonesia’s New Military Commands: A South China Sea Focus?

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Last week, The Jakarta Post reported that the Indonesian military would focus its future operations in the western part of country to deal with foreign threats, including in the South China Sea. The report is interesting to consider given ongoing plans to restructure the Indonesian military’s commands over the next decade.

The newspaper quoted Indonesia’s outspoken military chief General Moeldoko as saying that Indonesia’s forces – which according to military plans would form joint regional commands (locally abbreviated Kogabwilhan) to be in place by 2024 – would focus on the west of the country, especially in Sumatra and Kalimantan given flash points like the South China Sea.

“In the future, we expect that the South China Sea will be a flash point. So a task force, such as the Kogabwilhan, will be very important,” Moeldoko said.

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Put simply, the essence of the Kogabwilhan concept is to structure the military into multi-service regional commands consisting of a combination of army, air force and navy units and led by generals who would be able to respond quickly and flexibly to flash points with greater autonomy relative to the central leadership in Jakarta.

The Kogabwilhan idea is not a new one, and former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had begun plans to implement it as early as 2008. His successor and Indonesia’s current president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo agreed to continue with these ongoing plans last November.

The specifics, however, are still unclear. Moeldoko had previously proposed the establishment of three Kogabwilhan groups to Jokowi and his team. Geographically, the three groups were speculated to focus on the western, eastern and central parts of the country, and one was believed to be located in Sulawesi and a second in Papua. In line with this, The Jakarta Post report and Moeldoko’s comments might be simply suggest that the third Kogabwilhan group will indeed be located in the western part of the country and that it would focus its operations on dealing with foreign threats particularly in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

If so, that would seem to make sense. As military expert and researcher at Indonesia’s Center for Strategic and International Studies Iis Giandarsah says, “the most immediate flashpoints are located near the land and sea borders of Sumatra and Kalimantan.” While the threats are many, one of them would be the South China Sea. As I have written before, while Indonesia is technically not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, Jakarta is increasingly concerned about how the nine-dash line overlaps with the waters surrounding the resource-rich Natuna Islands and has played a role in facilitating dispute resolution efforts more broadly. It is also in the process of building up its own capabilities.

That being said, it is important to keep two things in mind. First, the South China Sea focus in Indonesia’s joint commands is far from a novel development. Under Yudhoyono, Indonesia reportedly planned to have four Kogabwilhan groups with one of them heavily focused on the Natuna flash point.

Second, getting these commands finalized over the next few years is a challenge. Ensuring all services are equally represented within these commands is by itself revolutionary idea because the army has traditionally dominated things in Indonesia. Then there are other questions such as how leadership within these commands would work and the sorts of threats they should each be responsible for. It is important to keep these considerations in mind even as we learn more about Indonesia’s joint commands in the future.

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