Features | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

The ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ and the US-Indonesia Partnership

The US should use Jokowi’s signature foreign policy initiative to take ties to a new level.

The ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ and the US-Indonesia Partnership
Credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Indonesia: home to over 250 million people and the world’s third-largest democracy. At the geopolitical nexus of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and with territory protruding into the South China Sea, this titan demands U.S. attention more than ever. President Joko Widodo’s October 25-28 state visit presents a prime opportunity to renew emphasis on the U.S.-Indonesia partnership. In particular, Widodo’s initiative to transform Indonesia into a “Global Maritime Fulcrum” (Poros Maritim Dunia) provides an ideal avenue for Washington to elevate the U.S.-Indonesia “comprehensive partnership” to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” This terminology, as recently proposed by a leading American expert on contemporary Indonesia, would mirror the “comprehensive strategic partnership” between Indonesia and China, as well as indicate the strategic gravity of U.S.-Indonesia relations.

Widodo, a leader of humble origins who prefers his popular moniker “Jokowi,” is widely understood to travel abroad with one mission at the forefront of his mind: Bring home deals that boost his domestic initiatives to strengthen the Indonesian economy and reinvigorate the pride of the Indonesian people. International Indonesia watchers do not regard him as a global statesman so much as a proven manager, elected after achieving national hero status for his successes as mayor of Jakarta and, before that, his hometown of Solo. This trip, his first to the United States as president, includes a stop in San Francisco, where he will discuss trade and investment opportunities with U.S. tech giants. However, when he is in Washington, eyes will be on the anticipated agreements delivered in the security sphere, with the emphasis expected on maritime security and counterterrorism.

The American team should recognize when cutting these deals that the most viable terms will reinforce a broader security agenda while also aligning closely with Jokowi’s domestic priorities. Fortuitously, Indonesia’s “Global Maritime Fulcrum” provides a menu of issues offering such opportunities. This initiative aims to strengthen Indonesia’s maritime infrastructure and security apparatus to better propel Indonesia’s economic and political rise. Symbiotically, the United States needs a strong maritime partner in Southeast Asia, particularly near the South China Sea. The opportunity of the Global Maritime Fulcrum comes none too soon for the United States, which should cement a comprehensive strategic relationship with Indonesia before a crisis in the surrounding area necessitates hasty action.

Seas as Bridges

The Obama administration has not yet taken full advantage of the opportunities presented by the July 2014 election of Jokowi. When Jokowi visited Beijing in May 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s warm hospitality set the table for launching the Sino-Indonesian “Maritime Partnership”; Xi pledged to use the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Silk Road Fund to accelerate Indonesian maritime infrastructure development by constructing ports and railways and fostering its shipbuilding sector.

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Like Xi, U.S. President Barack Obama should recognize that cooperation in the maritime domain is key to developing a deeper bilateral relationship with Indonesia. The Global Maritime Fulcrum serves as Jokowi’s centerpiece policy and focuses on a domestic reform agenda. Its five policy pillars speak to revitalizing national pride – a hallmark of the Jokowi administration’s arrival with a strong popular mandate – fostering economic growth, and securing Indonesia’s borders and resources against both state and non-state intruders. Such priorities are quite sensible. For example, high-profile activities conducted under the Global Maritime Fulcrum include the burning of foreign boats poaching fish in Indonesian waters. Such publicity demonstrates symbolic resolve to counter a serious economic issue. According to Jokowi, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing costs Indonesia more than $24 billion per year.

U.S. cooperation to develop maritime infrastructure, improve education and training, strengthen environmental regulation, and plan policy implementation of this huge initiative can buttress the foundations of a comprehensive strategic partnership. China and Japan have already taken the lead in bankrolling infrastructure development, and U.S. policymakers should expect that to remain the case for the foreseeable future. The Global Maritime Fulcrum and China’s Maritime Silk Road are closely aligned, and Japan continues to expand its support for the maritime connectivity, safety, and security in Southeast Asian sealanes. Still, as the United States is the most successful democracy of Indonesia’s scale and a nation with a longstanding maritime-centric outlook, its legions of skilled public- and private-sector experts have much to offer in support of Indonesia’s growth and governance.

Indonesia’s international posture is strongly centered on its non-aligned status, and from that position, the rapidly developing archipelagic nation can be a vital and equal partner in securing safe global trade routes that traverse the seas surrounding Indonesia. Following Jokowi’s visit, the United States should ensure its consistent participation in Indonesia’s high-profile naval diplomacy programs, such as the International Maritime Security Symposium and Komodo multilateral exercise. According to former Chief of the Indonesian Navy Admiral Tio Marsetio, a leader who himself visited the United States in October 2014, these events contribute to Indonesia’s international standing and support efforts to reinforce awareness of Indonesia’s maritime heritage. The United States should stand with Indonesia in international forums on mutually beneficial prerogatives like maritime infrastructure upgrades, anti-piracy operations, maritime resource management, and environmental security, thereby buttressing its partnership and further empowering Indonesian leadership in the geopolitically vital region.

‘To Be Glorious at Sea’

Situated along the southern shores of the South China Sea and bridging the expanse between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesian geopolitics is of global consequence. The crux of this geopolitical power lies in Indonesia’s straits – transit routes that are both arteries of global prosperity and chokepoints of economic vulnerability. Half the world’s merchant tonnage and a quarter of its petroleum pass through the narrow Strait of Malacca between Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Nestled entirely within the Indonesian archipelago, the Sunda and Lombok/Makassar Straits service vessels traveling between East Asia and Australasia, as well as those merchant vessels too large to transit through the relatively shallow Strait of Malacca.

The Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Laut, or TNI-AL) is a critical component of Indonesia’s renewed maritime focus. As president, Jokowi has regularly invoked the Indonesian Navy’s motto “Jalesveva Jayamahe,” or “to be glorious at sea,” as an ancestral slogan to drive national ambition under the Global Maritime Fulcrum. The TNI-AL has demonstrated professionalism and commitment when rising to recent challenges. A notable example was the 2011 dispatch of two frigates and two amphibious landing ships in reaction to the seizure of an 8,900-tonne bulk carrier by Somali pirates. This expedition, like the TNI-AL’s regular participation in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, impressively showcases the forces’ modern capabilities and vision to play a more visible security role abroad. However, the TNI-AL would likely be unable to stand up to a modern maritime force threatening Indonesian territorial integrity. Indonesian waters are simply too vast relative to the capacity of its fleet.

Joint naval capabilities are improving as the U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive relationship spurs increased military cooperation. In fact, a great deal of progress has been made since 2005 when the U.S. government began easing limitations on military-to-military engagement enforced by the 1997 Leahy Amendment – legislation restricting cooperation with militaries associated with past human rights abuses. Demonstrating the distance that the relationship has come in recent years, U.S. and Indonesian defense agencies co-led the first counterterrorism exercise organized under the framework of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM)-Plus, which includes 10 ASEAN member states and eight dialogue partners: the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, New Zealand, and Russia. Similarly four U.S. Navy ships and over 1,000 American sailors recently drilled with TNI-AL counterparts. A Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) study estimates that there are now over 200 engagements between U.S. and Indonesian forces annually.

U.S. foreign military sales (FMS) to Indonesia have also skyrocketed in recent years. The United States offered Indonesia 24 upgraded F-16 fighters in 2010 and closed a $500-million deal in 2013 to sell eight new Apache AH-64E attack helicopters and Longbow radars. Figures of U.S. FMS to Indonesia were in the tens of millions annually from 2006 to 2011, before ballooning in 2012 to $700 million with the F-16 sales.

Jokowi has indicated his intent to grow the Indonesian military beyond the goals of the previous administration’s “Minimum Essential Force” program and expand the defense budget from nearly $7 billion in 2014 to approximately $20 billion by 2020. Even if these aggressive plans do not come to full fruition, Indonesia is almost certain to acquire new generations of sophisticated military technology. As it does so, Indonesia is expected to maintain its commitment to strengthen its indigenous defense industries and expand defense industrial cooperation. Thus, it will become increasingly important for the United States to share its expertise in developing the military doctrine, training programs, maintenance procedures, and logistics networks to efficiently sustain and employ such complex systems. This support should not be limited to the military, but also include Indonesian civilians working in defense policy and technology management.

A particular strength of navy-to-navy training is that, by its fundamental nature, naval units are mobile, visit only temporarily, and ships occupy no territory. Thus, when operating within the archipelago, the U.S. Navy poses no threat – real or imagined – to Indonesian sovereignty or its non-aligned posture. The Indonesian Navy itself has called for increased joint exercises with the United States in the volatile South China Sea. Indeed, such mutual training would only brace Indonesian national strength and further support the goals of the Global Maritime Fulcrum. Involving other partners, for example naval units from Southeast Asian neighbors or maritime powers such as India or the United Kingdom, would further underscore Indonesia’s non-aligned leadership and its position as a key interlocutor between Southeast Asia and the world.

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The U.S. Marine Corps should similarly expand its cooperation with Indonesia as its forces rebalance away from conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia and back toward its maritime roots. The USMC is actively looking for training partners in the region, and the TNI-AL, with its highly respected 23,000-man strong Marine Corps, constitutes an ideal partner. Indonesian Marine Corps General Faridz Washington has said that global situations, particularly in the maritime domain, demand optimal readiness and welcomed expanded cooperation with the United States.

Counterterrorism can continue to be a building block for a U.S.-Indonesia security relationship. Indeed, radicalization and terrorism remain central Indonesian security concerns. However, counterterrorism should be understood as a mutual necessity, not strategic vision. The future relationship should rest in the maritime domain where Indonesia must secure archipelagic sea lines of communication and the territorial integrity of its national waters. Therefore, an archipelagic security strategy should be the focus of both the U.S.-Indonesia defense relationship and training.

Time to Act

The U.S. ought to seize the opportunity provided by Jokowi’s state visit and the Global Maritime Fulcrum to formalize a comprehensive strategic partnership with Indonesia, something it should have started 17 years ago when Indonesia shed its dictatorship. The People’s Republic of China has easily surpassed the United States as a trading partner of Indonesia and promised significant infrastructure investments. But nothing stands in the way of Washington closing the gap by promoting U.S.-Indonesia trade, while outmaneuvering Beijing for closer political and military cooperation with Jakarta. In fact, Chinese infrastructure investments will likely encourage Indonesia to look to its relationship with the United States and its allies as a hedge against dependency – a strategy Indonesia is even more likely to engage in as China flexes its muscles near Indonesian islands in the South China Sea and Chinese economic volatility calls into question Beijing’s ability to follow through with financial promises.

The U.S. is late to the game, but better late than never. Washington must play catch-up, and play vigorously, to make up for lost ground with this dynamic partner. A military crisis is growing frighteningly more likely in the South China Sea. Beijing’s increasingly assertive and expansive territorial claims would be laughable if they were not so foreseeably tragic. Should the powder keg ignite, a last-minute U.S. effort to sway 250 million Indonesian friends or foes will be too little too late.

Sean P. Quirk, Lieutenant (junior grade), is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is also a Young Leader and non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow with the Pacific Forum CSIS. John F. Bradford is a fellow at The Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan Campus. He has been engaged in Asian maritime security affairs for more than twenty years and, as an Olmsted Scholar, conducted graduate studies in the Department of Political Science at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The material in this commentary draws heavily from a previous publication: Sean P. Quirk and John F. Bradford, “Maritime Fulcrum: A New U.S. Opportunity to Engage Indonesia,” Issues and Insights, Vol. 15, No. 9, Pacific Forum CSIS, October 6, 2015. The views expressed in this paper are entirely the authors’ own and do not reflect the positions of Pacific Forum CSIS, the U.S. government, the U.S. Navy, nor any other body.