Last Friday, Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Putrajaya, confirmed reports that a Malaysian-flagged vessel was sunk by Indonesian authorities.
The boat was the latest casualty of Indonesia’s new policy of publicly sinking illegal fishing vessels operating in its waters under president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo – what some have dubbed the “sink the vessels” policy. Since coming to power last October, Jokowi has vowed to toughen Indonesia’s approach as part of his broader vision of turning the country into a “global maritime fulcrum” between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
In Jokowi’s view, Jakarta can no longer tolerate a situation where over 5,000 ships operate illegally in its waters every day, making a mockery out of Indonesian sovereignty and resulting in annual losses of over $20 billion. Over the past month or so, his administration has sunk vessels from Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, seized dozens more and even suggested that the approach could be extended to include larger nations like China. While the practice of sinking vessels itself is not new, it has been conducted in a much more high-profile and expansive manner under the Jokowi administration than it has in the past.
Jokowi’s advisers insist that Indonesia has little choice but to employ this approach to safeguard its rights. Years of talking with individual governments have produced precious little. They are also quick to point out that they have the legal backing to do so, both under domestic law and even under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
But critics say the issue is not one of legality but propriety. Indonesia, which had begun to regain its reputation as a leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, now looks to be disrupting regional solidarity just as ASEAN is getting ready to establish a community by the end of the year.
The sinking vessels policy, along with strident remarks by Jokowi’s advisers about preserving Jakarta’s territorial integrity and its recent inclusion as a top priority by the foreign ministry, has led to an alarming narrative in some Southeast Asian capitals about a more assertive Indonesia.
While these fears are sometimes overblown, they are hardly just the lingering nightmares of aging diplomats who remember the Sukarno era. To take one example, just last year, Indonesia’s decision to name a warship after two marines who carried out a bombing in Singapore in 1965 disrupted relations between the two countries. Ties were subsequently repaired, but distrust tends to linger in the region, and it often informs military modernization trends far more than the South China Sea, which some international observers tend to obsess about.
Where some see strength in Indonesia’s sink the vessels policy, others see weakness. As I argued over at ASEAN Beat last week, Indonesia’s capabilities, though growing, are still quite limited. Those with their ears to the ground know that Indonesian officials themselves have repeatedly acknowledged publicly that the country does not have nearly enough boats – or the requisite fuel for them – to police its own waters, let alone consistently enforce a sink the vessels policy. That might explain why Jakarta has thus far been toughest on “small fish” rather than vessels from bigger countries like China, a point not lost among informed local journalists.
Despite these concerns and limitations, signs indicate that this policy is expected to continue, if not intensify. While Indonesia’s diplomats have been busy quelling regional fears, Jokowi himself is reportedly frustrated that his assertive stance has not been implemented in a timely and consistent manner. Indonesia’s capabilities are also growing to match its ambitions, narrowing the glaring gap I have documented elsewhere between its aspirations and realities. Skeptics who still hear only loud noises from empty vessels should pause to consider what Jakarta could do with a strong navy and coast guard farther down the road.
Regardless of how Jakarta proceeds, the region will be watching carefully. Indonesia accounts for around half of Southeast Asia’s population and 40 percent of its economic output, so even small ripples seem like waves to its smaller neighbors. But other ASEAN states may not just be innocent bystanders for long. Indeed, arguably the most under examined aspect of Indonesia’s sink the vessels policy is how it is stirring debates in other neighboring states about the virtues and vices of employing a similar approach. Despite the overwhelming focus on Indonesia, seasoned observers know illegal fishing is a broader regional problem hardly unique to Jakarta.