Jokowi Seeks to Reclaim Indonesia’s Maritime Past

Foreigners, like most Indonesians, look at Indonesia almost entirely in terms of its domestic politics, economy and internal cohesion. But that may be changing as its new President looks out towards the world’s oceans.

For a mixture of reasons, the world’s most populous Muslim nation has itself long kept a low profile in international affairs. Yet Indonesia is also the world’s largest archipelagic nation and one that includes four of the world’s most crucial straits – Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar, through which travel most of the trade between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East. So it is worth noting a theme, little remarked in the outside world, which ran through the inaugural address of President Joko Widodo: the sea.

It seemed an unlikely theme for a figure from the inland, rice-growing region of central Java who was assumed to have little interest in foreign or military affairs. But, he remarked: “We have to work really hard to return Indonesia's status as a maritime nation. Oceans, seas, straits, and gulfs are the future of our civilization. We have been showing our backs too long to these seas, to these oceans, to these straits, and gulfs.”

Making repeated references to the sea, he appealed to the spirit of Jaleseva Jayamahe, a Sanskrit-derived phrase which roughly translates as “At sea we triumph” and is the motto of the Indonesian Navy.

Jokowi’s interjection is a recognition of the role of the sea and seafarers in 2,000 years of Indonesian history, one which includes the pioneering of trade routes from the Spice Islands to Africa, and the first human settlement of Madagascar.

But he is not just looking with nostalgia to a distant past of the feats of the Srivijaya and Majapahit polities and the legendary prowess of the Bugis sailors of Sulawesi and the boat builders of Surabaya. He is looking at a very urgent need for Indonesia if it is to fulfill its assumed role as the lead nation of maritime Southeast Asia, keeping its own archipelago safe and cooperating with its maritime neighbors and foreign powers in keeping the region secure and protecting its fishery resources from over-exploitation whether by locals or foreigners.

There is a very long way to go but Jokowi has made a start, appointing Indroyono Susilo, a relative of former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, as Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs – a new post – with a remit running from fisheries to ports and vital inter-island shipping. The transportation, maritime affairs and fishery, tourism and energy and mineral resources ministries will all fall under him. Adding weight to the maritime focus, the Coordinating minister for Political and Security Affairs is a former navy chief of staff.

Jokowi has also indicated a shift of defense spending from the army to the navy. For decades the focus of the Indonesian military has been on the army first as fighter for independence, then its dual political and military role for 30 years under President Suharto, and later engaged in internal security in Aceh, Irian and other troubled spots.

Although it clout has been much reduced since Suharto’s 1998 fall, the army continues to play a domestic role and receives the bulk of a defense budget which itself is only about 1 percent of GDP – even including off-budget revenues. Today Indonesia has the largest navy in Southeast Asia – but only just. Despite a vastly bigger coastline, population and the role of its straits, its navy is barely any bigger than that of Thailand.

Shifting limited resources to the navy, which currently has about the same number of personnel as the army, will be a delicate task. It may explain why, for the first time since the overthrow of Suharto a conservative retired army chief of staff, Ryamizard Ryacudu, has been given the Defense Ministry.

The navy faces several demands, firstly security against piracy protection of commercial traffic within the archipelago and secondly, the ability to control the main straits should the need arise. Its third mission is to protect its islands and waters against foreign forces. In the past its relations with Malaysia have sometimes been tense. A dispute still exists over waters off eastern Borneo and mutual suspicions may have been raised by Indonesia which last year inaugurated a submarine base at Palu on the Makassar Strait.

But both countries realize that China is by far the bigger threat. Although China’s infamous nine-dash line claim to almost the whole South China Sea does not, as far as known, include any Indonesian islands it almost certainly includes gas-rich waters east of the Natuna Islands. In March this year armed forces commander General Moeldoko said so directly and openly.

Indonesia’s sense of its own weakness was earlier shown when a Chinese naval vessel forced an Indonesian fishery protection vessel to release a Chinese arrested for illegal fishing off the Natunas. Indonesia also took notice when capital ships of the Chinese navy made a much publicized visit to James Shoal, a feature which China claims although it is on the continental shelf only 50 miles off the coast of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. The shoal is also only about 100 miles east of the Natunas.

Even the combined navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are tiny compared with China’s still-growing fleet of an aircraft carrier, several destroyers, many frigates and multiple submarines in its southern fleet. But Indonesia does have a right and duty to protect its fisheries and undersea resources whether by arresting Chinese intruders or, in extremis, using submarines to deny China access other than at very high cost.

At some point China may need to be made to pay a price for expansionism at the expense of hitherto peaceable neighbors so Indonesia’s naval focus, like that of Vietnam, looks increasingly to be on submarines despite their being very expensive to buy and maintain. Indonesia ordered three from Korea, one of which has been delivered, and aims for 12 by 2020, and is examining purchase options. Vietnam should have six Russian-built ones by 2016.

It remains to be seen how long China, a continental, land-focused power, will attempt also to be Asia’s naval overlord. But China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea are awakening the maritime nations to their histories, the great traditions of sailing and trading which came naturally to a region of islands and coasts. Jokowi is leading the way in articulating the importance of the sea.