Asia Defense

What’s Behind the Missing US-Indonesia Maritime Security Pact?

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Asia Defense

What’s Behind the Missing US-Indonesia Maritime Security Pact?

Entrenched interests prevent the signing of a coast guard pact between Washington and Jakarta.

As expected, Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s first visit to the United States last month saw the inking of several key agreements to boost the U.S.-Indonesia comprehensive partnership (See: “Exclusive: US, Indonesia to Strengthen Partnership During Jokowi Visit”).

Close observers of the visit, however, would have noticed the absence of a work plan on coast guard cooperation on the list of documents signed by both sides. The work plan was initially one of the concrete deliverables expected, given the importance of maritime security for the two countries as well as the issue’s rising prominence in the Asia-Pacific over the past few years (See: “Exclusive: US, Indonesia Eye New Defense Pacts for Jokowi Visit”).

Instead, sources told The Diplomat that there was a last-minute cancellation of the agreement from the Indonesian side just days before Jokowi touched down in the United States. The nixing of the pact has cast a pall over U.S.-Indonesia security ties.

“The issue is we have sectoral egos,” an Indonesian official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Diplomat. “There is still a fight for authority.”

Indonesia’s Maritime Coordination Problem

The structural issue is not new. Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state, has no less than 12 agencies responsible for maritime security, which has made coordination a logistical nightmare. In a bid to resolve this, Jokowi set up a new Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) last December to serve as Indonesia’s equivalent of a coast guard, replacing its weak predecessor BAKORKAMLA.

At the time, it was hoped that BAKAMLA, with  a strong mandate as well as an eventually larger staff and fleet, would overcome this maritime coordination problem and help Jokowi realize his maritime vision, which sees Indonesia as a “global maritime fulcrum” between the Indian and Pacific Oceans (See: “Indonesia’s Maritime Ambition: Can Jokowi Realize It?”)

But as a new body which still lacks personnel and patrol boats, BAKAMLA has predictably faced domestic challenges as it tries to get off the ground. Even BAKAMLA’s own operating chief, Commodore Wuspo Lukito, has admitted it has been caught in a web of regulations and maritime stakeholders and that it would take time to get past these obstacles.

“Synergizing with other maritime stakeholders takes time,” Lukito told The Jakarta Post somewhat euphemistically in his office in Jakarta earlier this year.

Domestic Resistance

The current resistance that scuppered the work plan on coast guard cooperation between Indonesia and the United States, The Diplomat understands, appears to be coming from the office of Luhut Pandjaitan, a close adviser to Jokowi who was recently appointed coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs following a cabinet reshuffle in August (See: “What Does Indonesia’s Cabinet Reshuffle Mean?”).

Since BAKAMLA is housed under the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Pandjaitan’s new role as coordinating minister means he now functions as the ex-officio chairman of the new body, reporting directly to the president, with the executive chairman operating as more as a day-to-day manager. This is an important role given that Jokowi sees BAKAMLA as a critical part of realizing the country’s maritime ambitions, participating in key initiatives such as the campaign to eradicate illegal fishing (See: “Explaining Indonesia’s ‘Sink the Vessels’ Policy Under Jokowi”).

“BAKAMLA is expected to help aid the implementation of President Jokowi’s vision to promote supremacy at sea, for example by combating rampant illegal fishing, as part of his ‘world maritime axis’ doctrine,” Tedjo Edy Purdjianto, Pandjaitan’s predecessor, had explained.

But while BAKAMLA has begun to get past some of its resource problems, there are still influential interest groups that view its very existence as a threat. As one source put it to The Diplomat, at a time when there is still a struggle within Indonesia about who exactly has authority over maritime security, there is little surprise that there would be resistance to a work plan that seeks to advance coast guard cooperation with the United States.

The Work Plan

Despite these power struggles, the work plan itself, a yet-to-be-released two-page document, does not contain anything that is a bridge too far substantively. It seeks to strengthen maritime safety and security and boost Indonesian law enforcement institutions and capabilities, with a focus on organizational management, human resource capacity, and technical skills. The means through which this is done include educational opportunities, subject matter expert exchanges and workshops, and senior level consultations.

Nonetheless, it would have been an unquestionable boost for the U.S.-Indonesia relationship. For one, it would have put more meat on the bones of U.S.-Indonesia maritime security cooperation, which is still quite basic. It would also have done so in a way where Indonesia would benefit greatly from American knowledge and resources.

“This is a great opportunity for us to benefit from the expertise and experience of the United States,” one official told The Diplomat.

Indeed, when BAKAMLA’s executive chairman, Vice Admiral Desi Albert Mamahit, had a meeting with United States Coast Guard commander Admiral Paul F. Zunkunft in Washington during Jokowi’s visit, he himself had expressed hope that the U.S. could play a role in human resource capacity-building as well as education and training of the newly-created body.

Furthermore, it would have given teeth to U.S.-Indonesia maritime cooperation. While Washington and Jakarta did ink a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on maritime cooperation during Jokowi’s visit, which lays out broad priority areas including maritime security and maritime safety and navigation, the work plan on coast guard cooperation was intended to serve as a more concrete deliverable as evidence that specific measures could take off within this. Officially signing such initiatives also helps paves the way for the authorization of funding and other resources.

The Road Ahead

On the U.S. side, there is unsurprisingly frustration about the lack of signing of the agreement. When informed about the agreement not being signed days before Jokowi’s visit, one U.S. official suggested that failure to ink the agreement would negatively impact maritime security cooperation between the two countries.

“If we don’t sign this, this will affect maritime cooperation between the United States and Indonesia,” the official reportedly said.

To be sure, this is not the end of the road for U.S.-Indonesia maritime security cooperation by any means. The hope is that a signing can be arranged once domestic issues are sorted out. BAKAMLA’s power may also grow over time if it continues to get ships from other agencies and new patrol boats are built for it as well.

In the meantime, both sides have also reportedly prepared a draft of the maritime cooperation action plan, a document that fleshes out the various areas of cooperation, including maritime security, in quite some detail. More generally, the defense relationship did make several notable gains during Jokowi’s visit, including the signing of a defense agreement which includes a procurement and joint research and development section that offers future promise.

Nonetheless, the failure to ink the work plan on coast guard cooperation is yet another cautionary tale that even advancing U.S.-Indonesia relations in areas so clearly critical to Jakarta’s own interests may be a tougher road than might be expected.