Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Jokowi’s Maritime Dreams Thwarted by Land-based Challenges

As Jokowi enters his second term, what security and defense challenges will top the list of priorities?

By Natalie Sambhi for
Jokowi’s Maritime Dreams Thwarted by Land-based Challenges

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, inspects the troops during a parade marking the 74th anniversary of the Indonesian Armed Forces in Jakarta, Indonesia, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo came to office in 2014 wanting to focus on maritime issues. His ambitious plan, known as the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), sought to revitalize Indonesia into a maritime-centric state and global hub. The most recent version of that vision has seven pillars: marine and human resources development; maritime governance; maritime economy and infrastructure; maritime spatial management and environmental protection; maritime culture; maritime diplomacy; and importantly, maritime defense, security, law enforcement, and safety at sea. For the last pillar, Jokowi wants to protect Indonesia’s oceanic resources and sovereignty through bolstering the navy, air force and coast guard. Many of his subsequent policies, and indeed the country’s diplomacy, have focused on attracting partnerships and investment toward these ends. As further sign of his commitment, Jokowi also appointed savvy ministers, like no-nonsense, illegal-boat sinking Susi Pudjiastuti, into key maritime-related portfolios. 

Now stepping into his second term, the reality remains that despite these grand visions, the maritime agenda will only form part of Indonesia’s security picture for the next five years. For Indonesia, security has always been about what lies within the country’s borders, not beyond them. Every Indonesian president since independence has had to contend with insurgencies, terrorist groups and separatist movements that have threatened the integrity of the state. This is also increasingly the case for Jokowi. For the past few months, the home front has seen increasingly violent protests in support of Papuan independence and university student-led protests — some of the biggest since 1998 — in major cities throughout the country against proposed legislation changes negatively impacting the Corruption Eradication Commission and a slew of other key issues.  

Terrorism has also loomed large in the past five years. Last year alone saw several major attacks including a string of suicide bombings in Surabaya against church and police targets—the first to successfully use a female suicide bomber and children. Indonesia’s national police chief claims to have foiled hundreds of plots since 2015 and the standing up of a new Joint Special Operations Command, which also covers terrorism, will boost the country’s counterterrorism capabilities. However, a recent knife attack against Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto by a member of ISIS-affiliate Jemaah Ansharud Daulat (JAD) is a high-profile reminder of the ongoing existence of these networks. 

There are also chronic human security challenges. Jokowi must contend with Indonesia’s annual haze and natural disasters. Last year alone, some of the worst natural disasters struck Indonesia, included three main earthquakes in Lombok, an earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi’s Palu, and a tsunami in the Sunda Strait. The death toll from these disasters totalled almost 6,000 people, with almost half a million displaced. 

Indonesia’s vulnerability to natural disasters can only worsen. Common events such as floods, landslides and drought can all be exacerbated by intensified weather events linked to climate change. Indonesia stands to benefit not only in reducing its own carbon emissions and has taken some positive steps including a carbon trading fund. In the meanwhile, Jokowi’s second term stated objective of strengthening human resources could include strengthening civilian capacity, particularly where disaster resilience is concerned. 

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Seen in this way, it is no surprise that, while Jokowi’s GMF agenda has been an important kickstart to Indonesia’s development as a stronger maritime state, the country will remain land focused. It is not just because the military (and increasingly the bureaucracy during Jokowi’s first term) is dominated by the army that it has a land-centric mindset. The domestic mindset within political and security circles is shaped by the reality that Indonesia, a country of 260 million people, with extreme diversity of religion, ethnicity and wealth, experiences insecurity often within its borders. 

Over the past five years, it has become clear that Jokowi must attend to domestic security by necessity. It is also imperative that Jokowi exercise greater agency. Take some of the recent protests, for instance. As Sidney Jones wrote recently, there is a window of opportunity now for Jokowi to address some Papuan grievances through “serious course correction,” not just economic development. In cases where the government is not a direct cause, such as natural disasters, the Jokowi administration still has a hand to play. Personnel selection is an example. In January, Jokowi picked active three-star general Doni Monardo as the head of the National Board for Disaster Management—and Doni has his work cut out. One year on from the Palu disaster, 1,630 families are still living in temporary housing with rising unemployment, a slowing local economy and little prospect to recover the livelihoods they enjoyed before the devastation. While one person cannot change structural and cultural factors in the short term, they can set certain policies in place that foster the right policy responses that might take root in the longer term. 

When it comes to Indonesia’s security forces, this kind of stability is important. For the president, the selection of the TNI chief Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, a Jokowi ally from his local politics days, and the National Police Chief General Tito Karnavian has been a winning combination. As we saw with Hadi’s predecessor, the increasingly rogue General Gatot Nurmantyo, who was then sacked, it matters who fills the top spots. Army Chief of Staff General Andika Perkasa is the favorite to take over from Hadi and, as the son-in-law of Jokowi’s close adviser A.M. Hendropriyono, he is likely to be a safe pair of hands. 

The cooperative relationship between Hadi and Tito, seemingly promoted at every intersection in Jakarta, is not just for show. Installing a credible figure with a background of achievement as police chief elevates the importance of the force alongside the ever-popular military. Reports of police brutality coupled with sweeping operations in September in which students were arrested in public places like restaurants have damaged what little public trust was left in the police. 

It is uncertain what kind of long-term impact having to constantly focus on and invest in domestic security will have in future. While we might argue that the GMF and its related agenda is languishing, Jokowi’s first term saw early gains with the unveiling of the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) and Indonesian Presidential Task Force to Combat Illegal Fishing (SATGAS 115) to prevent the loss of an estimated $3 billion due to illegal fishing. However, overlapping authority and lack of coordination between the 11 state bodies responsible for combating maritime threats have hampered efficiency. Multiple clashes with foreign illegal fishing vessels, most notably from China and Vietnam, and Indonesian authorities over the past few years have underscored the ongoing country’s vulnerabilities. 

Maritime-related upgrades as part of the military modernization plan known as Minimum Essential Force (MEF) and force restructuring have continued—but with varying levels of success. The military has moved closer to becoming an integrated force with the opening of new bases throughout the archipelago. The first, opened in the Natuna Islands in December last year, was the country’s first tri-service command since the 1980s, designed to foster integration and joint operational capabilities. The country’s nascent submarine-building industry is meeting some of the MEF’s target of 10 to 12 submarines. However, the joint venture with South Korea to develop a new generation fighter jet, the KFX-IFX, has languished with Indonesia delaying payments and resorting to offering of commodities instead of cash. This situation is not set to improve in the next five years. Current assessments of economic growth hover at around 5 percent, well short of the 7 percent required to meet not just Jokowi’s ambitious plans to increase defense expenditure to 1.5 percent of GDP.  

The GMF’s mixed record is evidence that the Jokowi government has been dealing with a number of other security priorities. Understanding the GMF against the broader backdrop of Indonesia’s domestic security challenges gives us a greater appreciation of not just what challenges Jokowi will face in the coming five years but how, and which elements of his security forces, he will need to address them. 

Natalie Sambhi is Executive Director of Verve Research and a PhD scholar at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre focussed on Indonesian military history.