For Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state with around 17,500 islands, the centrality of the maritime domain for the advancement of its security and prosperity has long been clear. Lying at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and amid strategic waterways that have attracted many foreign powers in its history, the sea has been both a source of immense strategic significance, but also of acute vulnerability.
Both of those aspects play into Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s notion of the country as a “global maritime fulcrum” between the Indian and Pacific Oceans (poros maritim dunia, or PMD) (See: “The Trouble With Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Priorities Under Jokowi”). The various thrusts of that policy – from increasing the connectivity of the sprawling archipelago to advance prosperity to developing a more capable navy to better defend Indonesia’s sovereignty – embody
Yet as I have emphasized previously, in order to get such a vision to work. Jokowi has had to confront a significant maritime coordination challenge (See: “Indonesia’s Maritime Ambition: Can Jokowi Realize It?”). That begins with managing no fewer than 12 national agencies or ‘stakeholders’ related to maritime security affairs, including the navy, the transportation ministry, and the maritime affairs and fisheries ministry. Historically, this has been difficult to do for a variety of reasons ranging from entrenched interests to fierce turf wars.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
To his credit, Jokowi took a few steps to address this challenge early on, including the creation of a Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and the establishment of a new Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut, BAKAMLA), with the idea that, equipped with a much larger staff and fleet than its weaker predecessor, it would eventually be able to become a coast-guard like body and also coordinate and deploy assets of Indonesia’s government agencies.
Unsurprisingly, this has been more difficult to do in practice than in theory. Getting the adequate resources for BAKAMLA continues to be challenging, even as it has already begun cracking down on activities like smuggling and illegal fishing and it has received some vessels transferred over from other agencies. In addition, other steps to ensure its success like vesting it with firm and clear authority and fostering greater and more meaningful coordination are proving more elusive still. Meanwhile, the head of BAKAMLA, Vice Admiral Arie Soedewo, now faces allegations of corruption.
On Tuesday, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s current Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, spoke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Following his remarks, which focused largely on Indonesia’s economic plans, I asked him about how the Jokowi government was grappling with the challenges that BAKAMLA is now facing.
In his response, Luhut quite frankly characterized the equivalence of BAKAMLA with a coast guard as a “dream,” and admitted that this was far from a reality. He also acknowledged the extent of the maritime coordination problem that the Jokowi government continues to face.
But it did not seem like the solutions to these familiar challenges were coming anytime soon amid the all-too-familiar obstacles they faced. Take, for instance, the long-recognized need for legal changes to ensure better clarity about BAKAMLA’s authority and its functions so it can operate as a truly independent and capable organization. Luhut said that though the government would “like to fix this very soon,” it will likely “tak[e] some time.” His comments were testament to how enduring Indonesia’s maritime coordination challenge is, in spite of the Jokowi government’s early commitment to confronting it.