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Indonesia’s maritime ambitions remain rudderless

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The sun rises during the launch of trilateral coordinated patrols between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's most important shipping lanes on 20 July 2004. (Photo: Reuters/Supri Supri).

In Brief

Implementing Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) vague ambition to become the maritime power connecting the Pacific and India Oceans — a so-called ‘global maritime fulcrum’ (GMF) — will be an enormous challenge for Indonesia. Making matters worse, since the announcement of the GMF, there has been no detailed policy blueprint, even though efforts to realise the vision have been underway.


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Indonesia’s National Medium Term Development Plan (RPJMN) 2015–2019 has outlined the country’s maritime aspirations, but its focus on overall development policy make it far too broad to serve as a guideline for GMF stakeholders. Likewise, the recent 2015 Defence White Paper contains only minor details on translating the GMF into tangible defence policies and strategies.

The absence of a comprehensive blueprint raises two main issues. First, it encumbers the coordination of GMF implementation as its pillars cross-cut into the jurisdiction of nearly all ministries and government agencies, making it a bureaucratic nightmare. Second, the concept is too nebulous. The absence of a clear master plan renders the GMF and its pillars vulnerable to multiple interpretations that suit stakeholders’ own parochial interests.

Ultimately a blueprint is critical, not only to grasp the entirety of the GMF’s depth and breadth, but also to serve as a reference point for related stakeholders to fulfil the vision. Without benchmarks or indicators, it is almost impossible to gauge whether policies undertaken by various stakeholders contribute to the GMF’s progress.

In formulating a blueprint for the GMF, the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs must first obtain authorisation from the highest authority in order to minimise bureaucratic friction. Equally important is that the coordinating ministry involves all the relevant parties in the policy formation process when implementing the pillars of the GMF plan.

Jokowi’s massive infrastructure projects in the first two years of his presidency have also not directly supported the development of the GMF. Many projects are land-based, including hundreds of kilometres of new toll roads in various parts of the archipelago, suggesting that the current development agenda seems to gravitate around general economic development rather than towards realising Indonesia’s GMF ambition. Recently, Jokowi expressed his dissatisfaction towards the current state of GMF implementation.

Given its all-encompassing nature, realising the GMF is a difficult task to undertake due to the limited supply of resources and poor maritime infrastructure. Prioritising selected pillars that relate closely to greater and more pressing issues, such as the economy, would be one possible avenue to maximise implementation. According to a recent national survey from Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting, a large proportion of respondents believe the current government needs to improve its handling of the economy, though the majority of them feel confident the government can do better in the future.

Still, Indonesia’s recent sluggish economic growth may also complicate the realisation of the GMF as the concept requires massive funding to finance necessary projects. Prioritising the formulation of a GMF masterplan would be an important first step to circumventing budgetary concerns.

With the masterplan at hand, the government could prioritise critical sectors of the GMF and adjust its policy as circumstances demand. The formulation of an ironclad GMF blueprint is essential to realise Jokowi’s maritime ambitions, and to avoid impromptu and sloppy decision making.

A blueprint should be issued by an authoritative entity — such as the Office of the President — to minimise bureaucratic friction. It must involve various related ministries and stakeholders in the discussion and implementation phases. Aside from the blueprint, it is also essential to remodel coordination between related ministries.

The Jokowi administration’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, led by Susi Pudjiastuti, has attracted positive public feedback for its successful efforts in combating illegal fishing and improving the sector. But more concerted efforts are needed as the GMF encompasses many other aspects including infrastructure, diplomacy, culture and defence. Reforming and improving the bureaucratic structures of relevant government institutions and infrastructure on the ground, such as port authorities, will be essential if the GMF is to be successfully implemented.

But the recent cabinet reshuffle has sent mixed messages regarding the GMF’s masterplan and its potential for implementation. In July, Jokowi announced seasoned politician and retired army general Luhut Pandjaitan as the new Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs. The appointment of Pandjaitan can help galvanise commitment to realising the GMF concept in which he has repeatedly shown strong interest. But he may be overwhelmed with other duties as his position also handles the resources sector.

As a first step, formulating a GMF blueprint and improving ministerial coordination will be essential if Indonesia is to meet its ambitions of becoming a maritime power and realise the massive potential behind the GMF concept.

Keoni Indrabayu Marzuki is a Research Analyst at the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Adhi Priamarizki is a PhD student at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto.

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