Indonesia Maritime Fulcrum – Will Indonesia Succeed?


The several factors that will influence whether Indonesia does indeed emerge as a major power in Asia, and what kind of major power it might be;

1. Military Capabilities

One key factor is how Indonesia develops as a military power. This is a complex question. Under Suharto and his successors, Indonesia’s armed forces remained heavily focused on internal security functions. This reflected several factors. Most obviously, concerns about internal security were very real, and TNI both in its military and political roles was seen to be essential to dealing with them. Money was an issue too; maritime (air and naval) forces designed for conventional conflict against foreign armed forces would have cost a lot more than Indonesia wanted to spend. But also, the strategic environment from the mid-1960s onwards allowed Jakarta to be very confident that it would face no serious external threats, which allowed it to give very low priority to developing the maritime capabilities which would have been required to defend the archipelago. By the same token, Indonesia had no reason to think it might need to use its armed forces to influence regional developments beyond its own territory, so it gave no priority to developing power projection forces, which would also of course have to be a maritime.

Indonesia’s capability to operate as a major power in Asia commensurate with its growing economic weight will depend in part on whether, and how far, it develops the military capability both to defend its own territory and to be able at least to contribute significant forces to regional coalitions elsewhere in Asia. This would be a very big challenge. Indonesia has begun to acquire some modern air capabilities in small numbers, but these are very modest compared with the air and naval forces that would be needed. Systems and platforms able to operate effectively against those of other significant maritime powers in Asia in future would need to be very sophisticated and maintained in large numbers. Building, maintaining and operating such forces would require a very different kind of military with a very different mission and mindset. For a start, it would require a basic shift in priorities and outlook from land to naval and air forces, which would obviously meet stiff resistance from the Army. It would also require substantial increases in TNI’s technical capacities. This is not impossible. China offers a good example of how these challenges can be met and overcome. Twenty five years ago the PLA’s air and naval forces were weak, its organisational culture was strongly oriented towards the Army, and its technical capacities were poor. Today, it operates large and highly capable maritime forces that are successfully challenging America’s maritime position in Asia. So, such transformations as Indonesia would have to undertake can happen.

Of course, they cost much money. Building the military weight of a major power would require large and sustained increases in defence spending. Indonesia today spends about 0.8 per cent of GDP on defence. The 2010 Strategic Defence Plan sets out ambitious plans for a minimum essential force by 2024, which required 1.5 per cent of GDP to spent on force expansion and upgrading. This was particularly aimed at boosting naval and air force capacity to allow more effective border defence against perceived growing external threats. The fact that barely half of the required GDP is currently allocated to the military indicates that Indonesia will fall well short of achieving its minimum essential force target in 2024. Further, compounding Indonesia’s defence problems is the flawed and often deeply corrupt procurement program. Many of the acquisitions have low compatibility with existing hardware and frequently lack the accompanying weapons systems to ensure high potency. TNI also has limited ability to maintain its more sophisticated weaponry to a high level. In his 2013 study of TNI capability, Benjamin Schreer (2013) concluded that Indonesia’s military was unlikely to substantially raise its effectiveness in the next decade. A final problem for Indonesia’s defence planning is that under Jokowi TNI is seeking to return to key aspects of its pre-Reformasi role. The appointment of ex-general Ryamizard Ryacudu, one of the most conservative army officers of the late Suharto period, has reduced the emphasis on developing naval and air capacity and bolstered the Army’s claim on resources vis-à-vis the other services. Moreover, Ryamizard, with TNI commander General Moeldoko, is leading TNI out of the barracks and back into social and political roles, such as village development and welfare, domestic security functions and ideological training of citizens. This is not a return to the full-blown political role that TNI played during the Suharto years, but it does signal a renewed focus on domestic affairs that runs counter to the Indonesian Government’s official policy of greater external defence capability. Jokowi’s recent nomination of the current hardline army chief Gatot Nurmantyo to be the next TNI commander breaks the Reformasi convention of rotating armed forces’ leadership between the three services and further privileges the army at the expense of the navy and air force.

Even with a steadily growing economy, Indonesia would need to boost spending to two or three times its current proportion of GDP defence expenditure to have any chance of acquiring and sustaining the kinds of forces that would be needed to make it a major power in Asia. This is not impossible. That would be comparable with the share of GDP spent by countries like India, South Korea, Turkey, France and the UK, and with Australia’s defence spending in the 1980s, and it is much less than the proportion that Singapore spends. For Indonesia to achieve its ambition of rapidly improved military capability, it would need to spend dramatically larger sums, clean up and discipline its procurement programs and have a clear sense of why it was important for Indonesia to acquire and maintain a very different kind of armed forces.

Perhaps most importantly, it would require Indonesia to develop a coherent strategic policy. It would need to understand what its armed forces were being built to do, which would mean deciding what Indonesia’s wider political and strategic objectives should be, how military operations can best support those objectives, and what kinds of armed forces can deliver them most cost-effectively. These are not easy questions for any country to grapple with, but there is little sign yet that they are being seriously debated or considered in Indonesia. Jokowi has spoken, somewhat grandly, of Indonesia creating a ‘global maritime axis’ (poros maritim global) within the Indian-Pacific region, which would deliver growing prosperity to his own citizens as well as to neighbouring nations. But scholars who have sought details of the concept and how it is to be realised have found little evidence that either Jokowi or relevant ministries have developed a systematic and well thought-out plan of action (Damuri & Day 2015). 2 Increasingly it is the case that Jokowi’s vaulting rhetoric on development issues is not matched by careful policy preparation. It is unlikely that Jokowi will succeed in making Indonesia a real maritime power in the Asian Century. This all suggests that while Indonesia will quite probably develop the underlying economic weight to become a major power in Asia over coming decades, and it could in theory build the armed forces that would be needed to realise that goal, at best this would take several decades, and it is far from sure that it will happen at all.

2. Diplomatic Capacity

Of course, armed force is only one of the instruments of major power. Indonesia has had some notable diplomatic successes, but overall its foreign policy machinery is poorly equipped to play a much larger role. The Foreign Affairs Department has a track record of misplaced priorities and sluggish, inept responses to diplomatic disputes. Some of its biggest areas of regional staffing are Europe and North America, while many of its Asia Pacific sections are under-resourced. It reportedly has just one person on its China desk and only a few fluent Mandarin speakers, despite trade with China to the value of $66 billion in 2013 and growing regional tensions over China’s claims to the South China Sea. Foreign Affairs has no Hindi speakers and pays scant attention to South Asia issues, much to the irritation of the Indian Government (Ward 2015). President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono complained frequently to staff that Foreign Affairs often ignored his instructions or dragged its feet on policy implementation. Ex-Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had similar frustrations with his Ministry and was often angered by the dilatory attitude of his officials. In short, Foreign Affairs shows little sign of being able to rise to the challenges posed by Indonesia’s growing diplomatic prominence and, indeed, remains one of the poorer performing major nation foreign services in the region.

Moreover, the Jokowi Government has dramatically reoriented foreign policy away from the diplomatically expansive role pursued by Yudhoyono. Whereas his predecessor actively pursued involvement in international initiatives and fora, and enjoyed playing the globe-trotting statesman, Jokowi made clear from the outset that his focus would be domestic, rather than external affairs. He has made no secret of the fact that he has little background or interest in international matters, and primarily views diplomacy as a means to achieve his ambitious economic goals for the nation. He has told diplomats that their main priority is now ‘economic diplomacy’, particularly to improve the wealth of ordinary Indonesians. Ambassadors have been warned that their performance will be judged on how much they are able to increase Indonesian exports and attract investment. Jokowi is not helped by having a Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, who is short on Asia experience (her postings have been to Western nations) and lacks a well-conceived view of strategic affairs, unlike her predecessors Marty Natalegawa and Hassan Wirajuda. Judging by her public statements, Retno seems content to mimic her president’s lines. She recently told the media ‘All Indonesian diplomats have to think like merchants’, and added that they should be ‘spending their time at trade shows’ and helping investors instead of focusing on diplomatic meetings (Sihite & Christy 2015). There are few other ministers in cabinet with much interest in or understanding of international issues and Jokowi relies increasingly on his foreign affairs advisor, Dr Rizal Sukma, and chief of staff, ex-general and former ambassador to Singapore, Luhut Panjaitan, for guidance on external matters. Sukma and Panjaitan, despite their expertise on international and strategic matters, struggle to counteract the inwardly focused and sometimes overtlyanti-foreign proclivities of the Jokowi cabinet and ruling coalition. Thus, under Jokowi, Indonesia’s foreign policy objectives are at risk of becoming the narrowest of any period in the country’s history.

3. Domestic Politics

Finally, there are big questions about how Indonesia’s domestic political culture is generating conflicting tendencies in the nation’s foreign policy settings. On the one hand, there is a growing, even over-weening, confidence that Indonesia, by virtue of its large population, its strategic location astride some of the world’s busiest trade routes, and its rapid economic growth is now a significant power and should act accordingly. Increasingly, Indonesia’s ministers and senior politicians respond to diplomatic tensions with neighbours by referring to their nation’s growing status in the world. For instance, at various times over the past decade, political leaders have derided Singapore and Malaysia as much less significant countries than their own, and similar comments can be found in more recent times when prominent figures have declared they can now ignore Australian protests on issues such as the execution of the two Bali because Indonesia increasingly overshadows Australia. Such remarks give the impression that Indonesians look forward to playing a much larger role in global affairs.

On the other hand, Indonesia also betrays symptoms of vulnerability. The nationalism that wants to see Indonesia striding the world stage, also wants to keep the world at bay and to protect the country against the perceived predations of global capital and larger Western powers. Support for protectionist policies is strong, and the Jokowi Government has obliged by imposing a wide range of import restrictions and clamps upon expatriate activities. At the same time as welcoming foreign investment, the government is placing growing obstacles in front of foreigners who seek to bring in capital, live and work in Indonesia. Anti-globalisation rhetoric is also widespread and it often accompanied by accounts of how the moral decadence of ‘The West’ is penetrating traditional culture and contaminating the lives of younger Indonesians. Even small measures, such as new regulations forcing dozens of ‘international schools’ to change their names to ‘intercultural schools’ are revealing of this suspicion of things ‘foreign’.

In terms of diplomatic policy, this ambivalence over engaging with the world often leads to contradictions. Indonesia is proud of its involvement in high-level multilateral fora such as G20 and APEC, and often irritates its ASEAN neighbours by boasting that it is the only regional power in the G20. Yet, it has been wary of using its position in these fora to advance new initiatives or to advocate strongly for Southeast Asian or middle-power agendas. At the 2015 Asia-Africa summit, Jokowi and other Indonesian leaders repeatedly criticised Western nations for their hegemonic or unjust behaviour, and yet no such remarks have been made to G20 and APEC meetings (Kompas2015). Jokowi’s highly pragmatic foreign policy orientation would seem to enjoy more public support that Yudhoyono’s diplomatic activism, but it is unlikely to lead to outcomes favourable to Indonesia’s longer-term national interests or its aspiration for major power status.

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