Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum: 5 More Years?

Analyzing Indonesia’s maritime progress during Jokowi’s first term, and looking ahead to his second.

By Tiola for
Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum: 5 More Years?

Indonesian sailors depart a Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) exercise with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard in a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Indonesia 2012.

Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Elizabeth Thompson

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is set to assume office for another half-decade, giving a sigh of relief to patrons counting on the continuity of his policies. Although the losing candidate, Prabowo Subianto, has filed a legal challenge to the Constitutional Court over the election results, Jokowi is likely to keep his victory, as there has been no credible report of massive and systemic election fraud so far.

Jokowi’s presumed second term brings immediate questions over whether he will employ the same strategic frameworks in driving the country’s development, and whether the concept of the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) will prevail. Early in his presidency in 2014, Jokowi highlighted his vision to turn Indonesia into a global maritime hub, motivated by the idea that the vast archipelago had turned its back on the sea for too long. The vision rests on seven main pillars: maritime and human resources; maritime defense, security, law enforcement, and safety at sea; maritime governance; maritime economy and infrastructure; maritime spatial management and environmental protection; maritime culture; and maritime diplomacy. Arriving at the end of Jokowi’s first term, how has the vision materialized? With the second term fast approaching, will he continue to commit to this concept?

The Economic Dimension

The current progress of the GMF can be assessed in three main realms: the economic dimension and how the concept translates into maritime connectivity and maritime-based economy; the defense and military dimension; and the foreign policy implications.

On the economic side, there has been notable improvement in maritime infrastructure and connectivity. Under the Jokowi administration, at least 19 new ports have been built across Indonesia, and eight additional ports are expected to be completed in 2019. Admittedly, after all Jokowi’s speeches about how Indonesia has forgotten the sea for too long, the intensity of this maritime development is still significantly less than that of land-based infrastructure. Out of 37 priority projects organized by the Committee for Acceleration of Priority Infrastructure Delivery (KPPIP), only four projects are related to port development, including the construction of Kuala Tanjung International Hub Seaport Hub in North Sumatra and Bitung International Hub Seaport in North Sulawesi. The remaining priority projects still put a heavy emphasis on land infrastructure, including six massive highway projects and four railway projects. However, this is somewhat understandable, considering the country’s land infrastructure is not well-developed yet. For instance, by 2016, roads occupied only 6.2 percent of Indonesia’s total land area (compared to, for example, Singapore with 15 percent). Moreover, building land-based infrastructure is not mutually exclusive with creating maritime interconnectedness.

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Unfortunately, the impacts of this development are still limited for two main reasons. First, port development projects are not accompanied by sufficient effort to streamline complicated regulations and inefficient bureaucracy. Despite various regulatory reforms in the logistics sector launched in the past four years, many aspects of the sector are still subject to different mechanisms under subnational governments. The large number of authorities involved in an issue — some are overlapping — are still hampering efficiency in the movement of goods. For instance, the cargo-related handling process in Tanjung Priok, Jakarta’s main port, involves more than a dozen authorities and service providers, administered and supervised by different ministries. Moreover, the integration of supply chain services is still far from materializing, as many forms of registration need to be done with different governmental agencies.

Second, some of the projects designed to generate economic benefits are still heavily subsidized by the government, due to lack of direct links between the projects and local economic activities. Take for example, the Sea Toll project — a program to improve connectivity and commerce between Indonesian islands by increasing the transfer of commodities through the sea. Entering its fourth year, this program has not been successful in fulfilling its goal due to a lack of economic development outside Java. While many of the ships heading to remote parts of Indonesia often carry fully-loaded cargoes, the return trips carry significantly less due to low production in remote islands. The costly return trips have pushed the government to pour heavy subsidies into the program:  218.9 billion Indonesian rupiahs (around $15.2 million) in 2016; 355 billion rupiahs in 2017; and 447.6 billion rupiahs in 2018. The government has been trying to address the empty return trips by establishing Rumah Kita, a logistics house to pool goods and distribute them gradually to various parts of Indonesia. The impact of this policy is yet to be seen, but as long as economic activities in the western and eastern parts of Indonesia do not experience significant growth, the Sea Toll program is likely to rely on subsidies for a while. On a more positive note, the government claims that the program has been successful in reducing commodity prices outside Java, especially in Papua, where prices of basic commodities have always been higher than most parts of Indonesia due to high logistics costs.

The Security Dimension

On the military side, the GMF concept has brought minimal changes to the Navy’s role within the Indonesian Military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI), an institution that has been dominated by the Army almost throughout its history. While the 2016 Defense White Paper did mention the GMF, there is very limited information on how and whether the TNI will put more focus on the Navy. Instead, the white paper elaborates at length on internal security issues as the main threats for the country. This narrative puts the emphasis on inter-group conflicts, radical ideologies and infiltration of foreign ideologies and cultures, which comfortably highlight the relevance of the Army as the dominant force once again.

The GMF also did little to propel the modernization of the Navy. Continuing the previous administration’s approach, the government seeks to fulfill the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) blueprint by 2024, which envisions the Navy to possess 10-12 submarines, 56 frigates and corvettes, and 66 patrol vessels. Although there have been significant procurements in the past three years — including two Nagapasa-class submarines delivered from South Korea in 2017 and 2018 and a third one launched in 2019 by Indonesian shipbuilder PT PAL, under a transfer technology agreement with a South Korean shipbuilder — the Navy is not likely to fulfill the MEF within the remaining five years. Currently, the Navy possesses five submarines (three more are to be procured under a $1 billion contract with South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering), 13 frigates, and 20 corvettes.

Budget constraints, of course, are partly responsible for the lack of modernization in the Navy’s primary weaponry. Early in his presidency, Jokowi pledged to increase the defense budget to 1.5 of GDP over five years, provided that the GDP growth rate hit 7 percent. With an annual GDP growth of only 5 percent since 2014, Indonesia has been spending only between 0.7 and 0.9 percent per year on defense. However, there is also a significant problem in the prioritization of procurement, which still puts a heavy emphasis on the Army. The 2019-2022 Budget Working Plan published by the Ministry of Finance reveals that the Army will receive around IDR 5.1 billion rupiahs (approximately $350,000) on average annually for modernization of weapons and non-weapons systems and facilities; while the Navy will only get an annual average of IDR 3.7 billion rupiahs ($259,000) on the same category. One may argue that this makes sense, given that in the past three years the government has signed around $2 billion in contracts to procure six submarines. However, in an archipelago where the sea constitutes 84 percent of the territory, the working plan does not sound like a good prospect for the Navy. Worse yet, in addition to the lack of modernization, the Navy is still facing the issue of overlapping authorities, with the infamous inter-institutional competitions and bureaucratic inefficiencies among 13 stakeholders involved in maritime security, including the Navy, the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), and the Police.

The Foreign Policy Dimension

Unlike the economic and military dimensions, foreign policy is perhaps a realm where the GMF could stand a chance to thrive without significant institutional and technical resistance. With most discussions and disputes in the region revolving around the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been able to focus on maritime diplomacy, be it through defense diplomacy and joint military exercises; norm building; or cooperation based on shared maritime interests. Since early 2018, the ministry has been putting significant efforts into promoting the concept of Indo-Pacific, emphasizing ASEAN centrality in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, which Indonesia sees as a “single geostrategic theater.”

Under the Jokowi administration, Indonesia has also been able to foster deeper relations with major regional players such as India through maritime cooperation. In July 2018, for instance, Indonesia and India launched a joint initiative to develop a deep-sea port in Sabang to boost maritime connectivity as part of Indo-Pacific strategy embraced by both sides. In the same year, the two countries upgraded their relationship from Strategic Partnership to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, with special attention to maritime cooperation. Where the GMF does not help much is perhaps in Indonesia’s relations with China, where there is minimum link between the GMF and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), understandably due to domestic sentiments against Chinese investments, and more importantly, due to strategic calculations over Indonesia’s hedging strategy.

In the name of enhancing maritime and border security, Indonesia has also shown some assertive gestures on matters related to the South China Sea, although many of these take place in a domestic frame. Highlighted among the administration’s initiatives was the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry’s controversial vessel-sinking policy — a practice to sink vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Since the ministry launched the policy in 2015, Indonesia’s fish stock had surged to an average 12.5 million tons per year, compared to 7.1 million in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the policy sends a strong message toward Indonesia’s regional neighbors, and has invited concerns from countries whose vessels were sunk, including China (although the administration has only sunk one Chinese vessel so far). Apart from the vessel-sinking policy, in July 2018, the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs launched a new map where Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone is renamed into the North Natuna Sea, perceived by many as challenging China’s nine-dash line ambitions. However, following complaints from China, the ministry later claimed that the document was only produced for internal discussions, and was unintentionally leaked to the public. In a less ambiguous move, in December 2018, TNI Commander Hadi Tjahjanto inaugurated the establishment of a new integrated military unit in Natuna, comprising of the three TNI services, which he claimed to be a step to increase Indonesia’s deterrence effect against a number of threats, including threats against its borders in the South China Sea. There are, of course, domestic motivations behind the establishment of this unit (such as a surplus of officers). However, it would be very naïve to argue that threats from the South China Sea were not a contributing factor in the decision to place the first such unit in Natuna.

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Ultimately, the GMF did not turn out to be a mere buzzword used in Jokowi’s 2014 campaign — it has translated into some tangible results in economic policies, some costly procurements for the Navy, and a foreign policy that features substantial maritime dimension. The size and speed of these changes, however, are too small to constitute Indonesia’s “transformation” into a global maritime hub. Of course, such changes will take decades to materialize. However, the government can do a lot more to pave a smoother way for reform, especially in addressing inter-institutional conflicts, entangling complicated bureaucracies, and implementing much more straightforward regulations.

In the coming second term, it is unclear whether Jokowi will continue to commit to these reforms. Already, in mid-May, the Jokowi administration launched the Sharia Economy Masterplan for 2019-2024, which puts sharia-based businesses and the enhancement of halal supply chain as one of the main motors for economic growth. Of course such a masterplan is not mutually exclusive with implementing the GMF. However, the new government needs to be more proactive in reiterating its commitment to the GMF, especially given people’s worry that the government would focus too much on religious issues and identity politics, which have dominated the stage in recent elections.

Back in 2014, when Jokowi delivered his inauguration speech on top of a phinisi boat, a traditional Indonesian ship, he told the people that it was time to restore Indonesia’s maritime prowess so that Jalesveva Jayamahe — a slogan used by the forefathers that means “in the sea we triumph” — will echo again. With his second inauguration scheduled to take place this October, it is to be hoped that he remains true to his words.

Tiola is a Senior Analyst at the Indonesia Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. The views and opinions expressed are her own.