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‘Stopping the boats’ Australian, Indonesian style

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In Brief

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first visit to Jakarta has been hailed a success.

Although little information has been released about what the visit achieved in regards to stopping asylum-seeker boats headed for Australia, some softening is evident in the Coalition’s pre-election rhetoric on the issue. This softer approach will help cooperation with Indonesia, but some obstacles to effective cooperation remain.


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Stating the obvious, Tony Abbott declared that cooperation with Indonesia is essential for the successful combating of people smugglers. However, this requires that Australia and Indonesia have a common understanding of responsibilities and procedures. This is not apparent at present. From Prime Minister Abbott’s perspective, this requirement is part of the operational details that are not to be released to the public.

Statements of respect for each other’s sovereignty were a feature of Abbott’s visit to Jakarta, but Indonesians and Australians think differently about maritime sovereignty. For Indonesians, the sea is an integral part of their nation state. Concepts of wawasan nusantara (archipelagic) and tanah air (land water), linking the islands of the Indonesian archipelago together rather than separating them, are fundamental nation-building principles for Indonesia.

On the other hand, Australians regard the surrounding oceans and seas as a moat separating them from their neighbours. The late Professor Frank Broeze, a maritime historian at the University of Western Australia, captured this Australian mindset when he observed that ‘[i]mages and perception of national identity have revolved largely around inward-looking and often racist concepts of “continental” Australia in which the sea was seen as a fence shutting out unwanted intrusions from the surrounding region’.

This mindset is evident in the basic purpose of the Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, which is to defend against unwanted incursions. It is also apparent in the Australian government’s negative rhetoric that promotes suspicion and mistrust about asylum seekers. Canberra has also militarised the issue, evident in the promotion of a senior Army officer to be in command of operations, despite their fundamental maritime and non-military nature. Militarising the issue is a backward step for both domestic policy and for regional cooperation.

Australia persists with a multi-agency approach to discharging its maritime obligations and protecting its rights at sea. Subsequent inquiries have revealed that a breakdown in coordination between border protection and search and rescue contributed to some of the tragedies in the waters between Australia and Indonesia. This has improved in recent years, but Operation Sovereign Borders potentially re-opens the divide.

Most of Australia’s regional neighbours have ‘de-militarised’ maritime law enforcement. Malaysia and the Philippines already have fully integrated civil coast guards with responsibilities that include maritime sovereignty protection, law enforcement and search and rescue, and Indonesia is in the process of establishing one in Badan Koordinasi Keamanan Laut (Bakorkamla).

Australia’s arrangements for protecting its rights and fulfilling its obligations in its large area of maritime jurisdiction remain problematic. Criticisms at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of Canberra’s actions in 2001 of initially refusing access to Australian waters by the Norwegian vessel Tampa with over 400 asylum seekers led to the IMO amending the International Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) Conventions. These amendments reinforced existing obligations for shipmasters and countries to provide assistance to any person in distress at sea, regardless of nationality or status of that person (emphasis added). The risk remains that Australia’s operations to stop the boats could run counter to these instruments, particularly if robust actions led to the disabling or the sinking of a vessel.

While Australia may be going backwards with its maritime responsibilities, Indonesia has commenced processes to get its own house in order. As well as the establishment of Bakorkamla, Indonesia became a party to the SAR convention in 2012. Previously it had been reluctant to do so, partly because of concerns this would admit to an obligation to allow ships and aircraft from other member states to enter its waters to search for a vessel or persons in distress. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) obliges every ship master to render assistance to persons in distress at sea, and a national search and rescue region of responsibility is not a zone of maritime jurisdiction where a country has any exclusive rights or obligations.

Canberra’s secrecy regarding its tactics for stopping the boats may keep the issue off the front page in Australia. However, it will not satisfy Indonesia’s legitimate interests in Australia’s tactics or the IMO’s concern that Australia may not be adequately fulfilling its obligations for the safety of life at sea.

Dr Sam Bateman is a Senior Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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