Indonesia's Natuna archipelago. Photo: Reuters/Tim Wimborne
Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, has promised to make Indonesia a leader in maritime affairs. In particular, he christened the doctrine: global maritime axis. Researcher Evan Laksmana sees this proposed axis playing out in two directions. He writes:
Domestically, Jokowi will seek to boost Indonesia’s maritime resource development and infrastructure, through, among other things, the development of an inter-island marine highway. Internationally, he envisions the further development of the country’s naval and maritime security capabilities, placing maritime and border issues — such as securing Indonesia’s maritime resources and sea lines of communication — at the heart of the country’s diplomacy.
Clearly, Jokowi seeks to unlock Indonesia's seafaring potential. This maritime potential has much to do with trade, energy, and fishing. It also has much to do with the country’s national security. After all, Indonesia is an archipelagic nation. Its contacts to other countries is via waterways; similarly, now that Indonesia is mostly past its messy and turbulent period, the major, existential security threats come via the seas, from foreign countries with competent offensive maritime capabilities. This national security component is only heightened nowadays, given Indonesia’s broader neighborhood in Asia, a locality filled with increasingly nationalist countries with steadily improving power projection capabilities, some of whom have longstanding waterway and territorial disputes and grievances with each other.
At bottom, the new maritime doctrine raises questions as to whether Jokowi plans to devise a conventional axis that's been witnessed throughout history, one that is essentially grounded in alliance politics, or simply a policy extension of Indonesia's bebas aktif.
Of these two paths, I suspect Jokowi wants to follow the latter. That is to say, Jokowi would like to upgrade and explicitly recognize Indonesia's position as a growing maritime power, but in a way that keeps Indonesia firmly as a friendly and independent country. Mind you, these aren't inconsistent goals.
Possessing better maritime capabilities doesn't necessarily mean that Indonesia will turn aggressive or acquisitive. Of course, those things could, at least in theory, happen. But that's highly, highly unlikely, given the foreign policy goals of Jokowi, the presence of other dominant powers in Asia, and, quite frankly, how the nation sees itself: as friendly and peaceful, a force for good. Plus, Jokowi has more than enough domestic political issues on his agenda--including boosting Indonesia's economic growth, tackling the fuel subsidy dilemma, and uprooting corruption--to prevent any radical changes in Indonesian foreign policy.
No, instead, a qualitative improvement in Indonesia’s maritime capabilities means that the country can more effectively leverage itself as the regional leader--in bilateral relations, in multilateral settings and platforms, and in ASEAN--that it aspires to be throughout Asia. A stronger Indonesia can more confidently and productively pursue its national interests and the interests of its friends and partners in Southeast Asia. Plus, a more capable Indonesia can function better as a regional mediator on knotty issues like the various disputes in the South China Sea.
Why? A stronger Indonesia is a country that nations like Vietnam and the Philippines and China—the major parties involved in the current round of hostilities there—will take very seriously, earning their respect and listening intently to what Indonesian officials have to say. Which is good, considering that Jokowi has recently stated that he'd like to see Indonesia get more involved as a problem solver in the South China Sea. If he invests in the time and requisite tools, his dream can turn into a reality.
In general, the history of regional and international powers tells us that possessing strong land and/or sea capabilities and resources does many things for such countries. Notably, these countries are respected, have a voice in the world, and play a part in shaping the rules and norms of regional and world bodies. This is where Indonesia is headed: not a world of militarism or confrontation, but a world in which Indonesia is able to carve out a large niche for itself as a builder and shaper of mutually beneficial rules and norms. Should Indonesia manage to cultivate enhanced status and position, it will be in a prime position to spread and entrench—via treaties and institutional mechanisms—its message of regional cooperation, stability and peace.
Of course, to an extent, this has already been happening. Led by the tandem of outgoing President SBY and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia has seen its profile in its region and world steadily rise. Sure, Indonesia’s crucial geostrategic location, its developing democratic political system, and its strong economic growth over the past decade have stimulated considerable interest in the country—from world powers, neighboring countries, international organizations, businesses, investors, consumers, and so on. But the other reason Indonesia has been making a name for itself on the world stage is because it’s widely seen—in particular, in Southeast Asia, the broader Asia, and the West, among other places—as a force for good.
For instance, Indonesia has been a key troubleshooter within ASEAN. Via Foreign Minister Marty’s diligent efforts, Indonesia has kept ASEAN relatively cohesive and worked to limit the influence of outside powers on ASEAN. While there are policy differences among ASEAN members, and some members have strong ties to Washington and Beijing, Marty has done a good job of ensuring that ASEAN hasn’t fractured into competing blocs. As one example, his laudable efforts in brokering a last minute 6-point statement in the aftermath of the tumultuous 2012 ASEAN ministerial meeting were vital in helping ASEAN to remain unified in the face of internal and external pressures.
All of these accomplishments are good, especially for an emerging power. But Jokowi wants to go beyond them. One logical place to start is to commence working toward getting China on board with a code of conduct for the South China Sea. This would be a smart decision, for a number of reasons. It fits with his stated political preferences. It would validate Indonesia’s self-identity as a regional mediator and power. It would go a long toward solving the region’s tensions, which would be beneficial for all disputants, Asia, and—given the amount of trade that passes through the South China Sea—arguably the entire world.
There are also national security and sovereignty issues at play here for Indonesia. In particular, there are questions about whether China’s 9-dash line passes through parts of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands. Not only are the Natunas prized as Indonesian possessions, but also because of their rich resources. As stated by the Jakarta Globe, “Its fish-rich waters are routinely plundered by foreign trawlers. Lying just inside its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone is the East Natuna gas field, one of the world’s largest untapped reserves.”
At this point, Indonesia’s official position is that there is no dispute with China over the Natuna Islands and that it is not one of the five countries that are currently challenging China’s claims to the South China Sea—though the Indonesia military has issued more strident tones over the Natunas in recent months, broaching the idea of sending more troops there to protect the islands. So far China has not made claims to the Natuna Islands, seemingly accepting that they are a part of Indonesia. Nevertheless, given its vague and ever-expanding 9-dash line, it’s possible—especially as its power and ambitions rise over time—that China might contest the islands in the future. Such a scenario would put Indonesia into direct hostilities with Beijing, which would not be a good thing. It would also undercut Indonesia’s ability to function as a neutral mediator in the South China Sea; that, by extension, would harm Indonesia’s position as a leader in Southeast Asia and ASEAN. And of course, the very foundation of Indonesian foreign policy—the idea that Indonesia is a free and independent country, a friend to all and an enemy to none—would stressed to the breaking point.
It is precisely because of these future possibilities that Jokowi should get ahead of the game and begin to work on getting all involved and concerned countries to recognize that lowering tensions in the South China Sea is essential and that work on a code of conduct for the sea should begin as soon as possible.
But what if Jokowi really does want to develop a maritime axis of seafaring powers—either in addition to or instead of the ideas mentioned above? In this case, Jokowi will probably face pressure, especially from the West, to develop such an axis along democratic lines. In other words, for its own self-interested reasons, the West will likely want Indonesia to put together an axis that is primarily, if not completely, democratic, including such countries as India and Japan. Of course, developing stronger military and defense and economic and political ties to Tokyo and New Dehli is a healthy thing for all involved. But leaving Beijing out of this axis would be self-defeating. It would only alienate China, as it would probably fear the worst at being left out. Indeed, China would likely think this axis was directed at it. Plus, such a move by Indonesia, given the attitudes and interests of Japan and India, risks signaling to Asia, if not beyond, that is planning a transition away from its free and independent foreign policy to an alignment that leans in the direction of containing China. Does Indonesia want to be in this position? Highly doubtful. It flies in the face of Indonesia’s national interests, identity, and history.
A better move would be to include all of Asia’s powers in a potential maritime axis. Put simply, if Jokowi goes this route, China should be in. This would reduce China’s anxieties and insecurities. It would serve as a good forum for all parties to communicate and exchange ideas with each other on maritime issues, which is crucial given that these issues are so sensitive to countries in Asia and have political, economic and security repercussions for entire globe. It would also provide ample opportunities for all sides to parlay cooperation on discrete maritime issues into collaborative efforts on a wider range of issues, even non-maritime issues. This kind of structure, this axis, with close contact and free flowing information, creates an environment in which trust can more easily thrive, misperceptions are limited, and inter-state bonds are strengthened. This would be excellent for Indonesian national security as well as the security for Asia and the world at large.