Asia Defense

Can Bakamla Be at the Forefront of Indonesia’s Natuna Sea Strategy?

Recent Features

Asia Defense | Security | Southeast Asia

Can Bakamla Be at the Forefront of Indonesia’s Natuna Sea Strategy?

Scarce resources and inter-agency disputes have hamstrung the development of the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency.

Can Bakamla Be at the Forefront of Indonesia’s Natuna Sea Strategy?

The Indonesian Bakamla vessel KN Tan Jung Datu (left) sails alongside the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton in the Singapore Strait, on August 11, 2019.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Levi Read

In recent years, Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) has grown in prominence as a key actor in securing the country’s maritime interests in the Natuna Sea. However, Bakamla’s controversial acknowledgement as a maritime “coordinating body” (in the eyes of other maritime security agencies) and limited operational assets has put Indonesia’s so-called “coastguard” in an untenable position. Without clear political will from the central government to strengthen Bakamla’s operational capabilities and its institutional position, Bakamla will be hard-pressed to become a robust coastguard unit or contribute significantly to Indonesia’s Natuna Sea strategy.

Vice Adm. Aan Kurnia, the Bakamla chief, stated at the end of December that Bakamla’s priority program in 2022 will be to protect the North Natuna Sea area. More importantly, his institution has also planned to convene a meeting with maritime officials from five Southeast Asian countries (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam) on Batam Island – a bastion of Indonesia’s defense establishment in addition to Natuna and Bintan in the Riau Archipelago – to address the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea. The meeting aims to improve the camaraderie between the different nations’ coastguards and serve as a venue for discussing more tangible collaborative programs, such as knowledge transfer and data exchange, for dealing with operational challenges in the South China Sea. This proposed sequence of events implies that Bakamla is positioning itself as the lead agency for Indonesia’s Natuna Sea strategy.

Keeping Up the Game

Since gaining strong legal legitimacy under Law No. 32/2014 on Marine Affairs, Bakamla has slowly morphed into Indonesia’s coastguard agency with a broad scope of roles and operational capabilities. According to the law, the original purpose of Bakamla was to act as a law enforcement agency at sea, with responsibilities spanning from territorial waters to international seas. Yet it also stipulates the institution’s role as a coordinating agency when it comes to dealing with other preexisting maritime security agencies. Relying initially on small-sized patrol vessels lent by the Indonesian Navy and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, Bakamla found early success in its patrol missions and seized foreign fishing vessels in Indonesia’s maritime jurisdiction.

Since 2017, Bakamla’s role has broadened with the acquisition of larger offshore patrol vessels capable of reaching more distant seas, including Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and international waters. The ability to patrol on the high seas has given Bakamla the confidence to be more active in intercepting foreign fishing boats from China and Vietnam.

Bakamla began to face more serious challenges from late 2020, when Chinese coastguard vessels entered Indonesia’s EEZ without the involvement of fishing vessels. In December of that year, Bakamla faced ship 5402 of the China Coast Guard (CCG), the first time that a CCG vessel had entered Indonesia’s EEZ  without the presence of a fishing boat. This meant that this encounter was qualitatively different from the previous clashes. Between August and October 2021, Bakamla also faced pressure, with Chinese survey and CCG vessels attempting to interfere with drilling activities near the Tuna Block in the North Natuna Sea. These various patrol activities show that Bakamla has evolved into an important element of Indonesia’s maritime security strategy around the Natuna islands.

Limited Operational Assets

Bakamla continues to face problems arising from its meager operational assets. To date, the force has only acquired 10 coastguard vessels – six units measuring 48 meters, three units measuring 80 meters and one unit measuring 110 meters, as well as a handful of high-speed craft. In a recent Channel News Asia documentary, Bakamla’s chief revealed that the institution aimed to acquire at least 80 large-sized vessels for better patrol coverage, longer endurance in rough seas, and better surveillance capabilities. The overall number of vessels owned by Bakamla is still small, although it underwent a rapid acquisition program between 2017 and 2019 by relying on the capabilities of the domestic shipbuilding industry in Batam, in the Riau Islands.

Besides the problem of limited patrolling capabilities, the weapons deployed onboard are minimal, limited to the AK-47s carried by Bakamla personnel and 5.56-millimetre rifles. There was an attempt to modernize the weapons systems onboard the vessels through the acquisition of the Aselsan 30-millimetre gun remote-controlled weapon system with the permission of the Ministry of Defense. Yet, the weapon systems will only amount to four units – most likely to be installed on their 110-metre and 80-metre ships. The primary reason behind the weapon acquisition is the wariness over the presence of China’s well-equipped coastguard vessels in the Natuna waters. Capability limitations have implications for Bakamla at the operational level, where they are still much dependent on the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) for backup support.

The Lack of Acknowledgement at Home

Another problem for Bakamla is its limited acknowledgement at home, which stems from its unclear institutional identity. On the one hand, Bakamla’s establishment and status is affirmed by Law No. 32/2014 on Marine Affairs and Presidential Regulation No. 178/2014 on Bakamla, which grants it the status of a coordinating agency overseeing other maritime security agencies. On the other hand, there is a desire among Bakamla’s leadership to develop the institution in the mold of the United States Coast Guard. In fact, the development of Bakamla’s paramilitary force, the strategic leadership of its personnel, who are navy officers, its weapons system and large-sized patrol vessel acquisition, and its cooperation with the U.S. to develop a training center in Batam have socialized Bakamla to emphasize its coastguard identity over that of its status as a coordinating agency.

This acceptance problem was apparent during the recent discussion over the draft Government Regulation on Bakamla (RPP Bakamla), which resulted in the riling of sectoral egos and institutional competition over resources between the various domestic maritime agencies. Other security agencies including the Ministry of Transportation’s Marine and Coast Guard Unit (KPLP), the Water Police (Polair), Customs (Bea Cukai), and Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, rejected the draft. Of particular concern was Article 36 of the RPP Bakamla, which stipulated that other maritime security agencies would have to conduct patrols and arrests under Bakamla’s attributes and identity. Additionally, they argued that the navy should have been involved in the discussion as one of the key maritime security actors, thus rejecting the proposition that Bakamla would become a “coordinating” agency for all other domestic maritime agencies.

The Way Forward

One could possibly argue that putting forward white hulls is one applicable, if not the best, way of responding to China’s grey zone tactics in the region. With Indonesia’s firm position that it is not a claimant state in the South China Sea, Bakamla is front and center of Indonesia’s strategy to safeguard the North Natuna Sea. At the same time, a better equipped coastguard combined with the navy’s prowess would be one crucial operational component of Indonesia’s strategy to deal with China’s unlawful claims.

The administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo will need to address the sectoral ego issue among Indonesia’s many maritime security agencies and accelerate the enactment of the RPP Bakamla, spelling out how inter-agency coordination among key maritime security actors can be operationalized. In this context, Bakamla should work with the government to determine its organizational goals and mission, promote organizational development, develop a better weapons procurement strategy, and a more comprehensive personnel training program. It is also necessary to delineate in the Government Regulation precisely how Bakamla and the navy should work together and fulfil their respective duties in vulnerable maritime zones such as the North Natuna Sea.

The central government’s willingness to resolve the inter-agency logjams and address Bakamla’s equipment shortcomings will be crucial to its development into a strong coastguard. For Jokowi, who aspires to have Bakamla become the coastguard of Indonesia, this could be one of the most prominent accomplishments of his administration.

This article was originally published by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and is reprinted with permission.