The Debate

Indonesia’s Strategic Choice

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The Debate

Indonesia’s Strategic Choice

The country needs to make a decision about where it stands on the South China Sea.

The Indonesian military (TNI) and the strategic perspectives of the Indonesian political leadership have been shaped by a tumultuous history of domestic security challenges.  Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of thousands of islands and hundreds of more or less distinct ethnic communities. That geography and ethnography virtually guarantee that national unity and stability will be an enduring preoccupation of any Indonesian government.

With the advent of Suharto’s New Order Regime out of the bloody events of 1965, the TNI became the domestic security arm of a regime that prioritized the economic development and modernization of Indonesia. This internal focus was enabled by the remarkable, if relative, peace and security enjoyed by Southeast Asia from the mid- 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century.  The profile that emerges of the TNI during this period is army-dominated, relatively low-tech, with a notably modest budget supplemented by substantial military involvement in business enterprises.  In conformance with dwifungsi, the TNI had significant administrative and political influence.  Indonesia’s external maritime environment, including the South China Sea, was simply a non-factor in Jakarta’s strategic thinking.

Indonesia was profoundly shaken by two related events at the end of the 1990s – the Asian Financial Crisis and the collapse of the Suharto regime.  But the subsequent decade and a half were marked by a remarkable national recovery constructing a political democracy and an increasingly productive economy.

In terms of national security, a clear set of preferences emerged.  Indonesia would be a regional leader working through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Beyond ASEAN, Indonesian policy would seek cordial and constructive relations with China – reflected in an increasingly robust economic relationship.  The United States would be welcome as an economic and security partner but there would always be a certain reserve on Jakarta’s part – keep the Americans nearby but not too close.

Concerns about territorial disputes in the South China Sea would be managed by: (1) affirming that Indonesia was not a claimant in those disputes; (2) offering Indonesia’s services as a mediator and facilitator; and (3) championing ASEAN’s proposal for a binding “Code of Conduct” that would eschew coercion and conflict to be signed by all interested parties in the South China Sea.

This set of propositions enjoyed consensus support among policy and political elites in Jakarta.  There was, however, an increasingly evident problem.  China did not respond as hoped in the South China Sea.  Instead of agreeing to a Code of Conduct, China asserted territorial ambitions that included “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea – backed up with rapidly growing naval and quasi-naval deployments and the seizure and construction of island features.  On several occasions over the last four years, Chinese maritime police reportedly used threats of force to protect Chinese fishermen operating in Indonesia’s EEZ.

The implications of this dramatic transformation of the strategic landscape were underlined by a very recent sequence of events in March, when the Indonesian Navy detained and arrested a Chinese fishing vessel and crew operating well within the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone off Natuna Island. As Indonesia began towing the Chinese boat toward port, a Chinese Maritime Enforcement vessel intervened and forced the Indonesians to surrender the boat.  The fishermen, however, remain in Indonesian custody.  China has demanded their return claiming they were operating lawfully in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.” The Indonesian response has revealed a degree of strategic disarray in Jakarta. The Minister for Maritime Affairs accused China of supporting illegal fishing in Indonesian waters and demanded the Chinese boat be handed over.  However, the Deputy Foreign Minister stressed “that Indonesia and China do not have a border problem.”

But the two countries do have a border problem and large Chinese fishing fleets are routinely entering Indonesia’s EEZ protected by the Chinese “Coast Guard” backed by the Navy.  Meanwhile Indonesia remains committed to the proposition that it is not a party to the South China Sea disputes and seeks to be an honest broker working through ASEAN.

Bluntly put, the new Jokowi administration faces an unwanted strategic choice – forced upon it by events.  Indonesia can sidestep the dispute with Beijing by accepting China’s contention that it has traditional fishing rights off Natuna and offer to sign a formal agreement recognizing those rights. The net effect would be both economic and strategic. Economically, Indonesia already estimates that it loses up to $5 billion annually to foreign fishing fleets operating in Indonesian waters. That number will do nothing but increase. (Whether fishing fleets from other countries could claim similar “traditional rights” would be an interesting question).

Strategically, Indonesia would truly become a non-claimant and nonparticipant in the South China Sea. Jakarta could continue to offer its services as an honest broker — an effort already marked by years of futility.  The most far-reaching effect would be to foreclose future Indonesian strategic leadership of Southeast Asia.

The second strategic option would require Indonesia to assert its national and territorial interests knowing and defying Chinese objections. Such a stance would include a formal statement from the President (to give Indonesian strategy one voice) that continued unauthorized fishing by foreign fleets, including Chinese, in Indonesia’s EEZ would be illegal under international and Indonesian law and, if supported by a foreign government, would be viewed as an unfriendly, even hostile, act.

Steps to give such a policy credibility would include: (1) seeking a common understanding with Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines regarding mutual EEZ demarcations and rights; (2) invest as rapidly as possible in maritime military surface and air assets to monitor and patrol Indonesian waters; (3) initiate accelerated cooperation with the United States and Japan as sources for concessional procurement of military and reconnaissance platforms; (4) give priority to a program of joint naval exercises with the U.S. Navy; and (5) consider seeking a formal legal judgment from the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea concerning EEZ rights and access.

The latter set of options would put Indonesia in a very different place strategically than it has been over the six-plus decades since Merdeka (independence). It would also transform Indonesia’s relations with China (for the worse) and the United States (for the better).  It would require a radical reworking of the software and hardware of the TNI – a new TNI would see itself as externally focused with a primary maritime mission.  That would require a much modernized Navy (TNI-AL) with greatly expanded littoral capabilities. The Indonesian government would need to abandon treasured illusions, i.e. the honest broker and the ASEAN Code of Conduct.  It would mean an end to policy paralysis due to an unattainable requirement for ASEAN consensus.  Finally, it would mean that President Jokowi’s stated concept of “Indonesia as a Global Maritime Axis” would be taken seriously and would set in motion a real effort to defend Indonesia’s maritime borders and resources.

Marvin Ott is a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Mick Zloof is a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.