Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rethinking Indonesia’s global maritime axis


In October 2014, while taking the oath as Indonesia’s seventh president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called upon his nation “to work as hard as possible to turn Indonesia into a maritime nation”. A month later, during the East Asia Summit in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, he highlighted his vision of Indonesia being a “global maritime axis”, postulating that concurrent to the “rise” of Asia, the sea would assume immense relevance for his country. However, as we enter the fifth month of Jokowi’s presidency, we have yet to see a blueprint.

The new maritime doctrine comprises five key elements to realize Indonesia’s long- dormant potential to emerge as a maritime power, such as embedding maritime cultures, developing marine infrastructure through an inter-island maritime highway, boosting Indonesia’s maritime-resource development, placing maritime and border issues at the heart of diplomacy, as well as strengthening maritime security.

This foreign policy doctrine will face at least three challenges involving maritime identity, maritime diplomacy as well as maritime connectivity.

First, embedding a maritime culture is not easy. During former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first tenure, Indonesia tried to attach a moderate Muslim identity to its foreign policy. However, as scholars point out, although Islam is the majority religion in Indonesia, Islam has not played a dominant role in post-independence politics or policy making.

The role of Islam in foreign policy has always been secondary; the dilemma of dual identity and domestic weaknesses set the limits within which Islam could be expressed in foreign policy. Our long-standing army-based territorial defense has, similarly, led to weaker naval capacity than that of smaller powers of Southeast Asia such as Singapore and Vietnam.

Second, as the world’s largest archipelagic state Indonesia uses maritime diplomacy for cooperative regional relationships, thereby achieving two objectives: First, ensuring its security and second, by actively resolving its border disputes and demonstrating its leadership credentials by mediating interstate regional boundary disputes. Today’s regional geopolitics, characterized by the rise of maritime powers in Asia and beyond, has increasingly made our sea-lanes and maritime choke-points (the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits) critical, and therefore consequential to our foreign-policy strategic planners.

The maritime axis doctrine has not really elaborated a strategy to manage the Malacca Strait. As one of the world’s busiest straits and reputed as the artery of global economy, the Malacca Strait is among the most important choke points for global trade. However, Indonesia reportedly loses more than Rp 30 trillion (US$2.3 billion) annually from the illegal parking of vessels and illegal fishing activities in the strait.

Therefore, securing and managing the Malacca Strait with other littoral states are highly important. One key aspect is urging more contributions in aid and capacity building from the user states through the International Maritime Organization.

 Third, Indonesia’s plan to enhance inter-island connectivity by building 24 seaports and deep sea ports as well as upgrading port infrastructure may face economic challenges. The maritime sector has been marginalized for too long in the national development agenda. Indonesia is yet to set up a special fund to boost infrastructure development and has so far relied on foreign investment. In comparison, China has launched a $40 billion Maritime Silk Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to support its 21st century Maritime Silk Road.

The 21st century will unequivocally be a maritime century. Most global commerce moves by sea, most of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the coast, the world continues to rely on the sea as a source of protein, and the ocean ecosystem lies at the heart of global climate change. Consequently, a state’s ability to project a clear vision on maritime issues will define this century’s international politics. Thus Indonesia’s ability to mainstream ocean-related issues in international fora as well as projecting its strategic vision as the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for 2015-2017 will determine whether Indonesia can become a global maritime axis or not.

The writer, Pandu Utama Manggala, Jakarta a diplomat, completed his double master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy at the Australian National University with first class honors.

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