Indonesia and the sea

The vision of a global maritime nexus is there. But so are domestic and international challenges that could leave Indonesia’s dream in ashes.

Indonesia and the sea AFP Photo/Donal Husni/NurPhoto

Under the administration of President Joko Widodo, Indonesia is gradually increasing its maritime capabilities, including reforming its moderately outdated primary military defense systems. The Indonesian government repeatedly touts the strategy of becoming a “global maritime nexus.” The country indeed has the abilities needed to attain this, including the natural and human resources, and the economic potential, as well as being in one of the world’s key geographic locations. Yet, some might be rather skeptical about such a doctrine, as the country is preoccupied with numerous domestic problems, not to mention being burdened with a weak legal system.

International relations scholars and policy makers know that certain factors, including military power, economic power and national stability, must be taken into account to determine whether a country is capable of becoming a global player. Inspired by the book “Soft Power,” by Joseph Nye, the American political scientist, about such power and cultural influences in relation to power, this essay attempts to analyze the political culture underlying Indonesia’s domestic politics and foreign policy, in relation to the idea of Indonesia becoming a global maritime nexus. We argue that political culture is no less important than any other factor.

Maritime culture is the first of the five pillars of President Joko’s maritime nexus doctrine. As an archipelago nation of 17,000 islands, Indonesia should be aware of and see the oceans as part of its national identity and prosperity, and the country’s future will be determined by how it manages the oceans, the president has said. The Indonesian government realizes that the national culture is an important soft power factor in projecting its global maritime nexus vision. President Joko’s emphasis on maritime culture is reasonable given that Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic state, with several advantages stipulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, as the country has embraced democracy for nearly two decades now, political factors are important in influencing Indonesia’s soft power. President Joko’s administration has not provided a sufficient blueprint to address political as well as cultural factors in Indonesia. Addressing cultural factors alone, without paying adequate attention to political realities, will not be enough to support the president’s vision of a global maritime nexus.

As such, this essay will focus on the political and cultural factors that might shape and influence Indonesia’s chance to attain this vision. We argue that a political-cultural approach is key to lay the groundwork for the maritime nexus dream.

The cultural rationale

President Joko’s global maritime nexus is inseparable from Indonesia’s ambition to secure its national borders and project its influence across the county’s sprawling archipelago. This makes the policy not only about a maritime culture but also about a political culture. Indonesia has always regarded the sea as a fundamental aspect of achieving its goal of national unity by enforcing the notion that land and sea are united under the concept of “tanah air,” meaning homeland, according to Singaporean scholar Toh Boon Kwan.

The concept of tanah air played an important role as a political manifesto in Indonesia’s struggle against Dutch colonialism. In this respect, President Joko’s vision of the global maritime nexus should be viewed in the context of adopting pragmatic measures based on political strategy.

Indonesia’s cultural pragmatism is strongly rooted in elements found within the country’s geography. Indonesia’s approach to its cultural identity and maritime security posture has always been within the context of enforcing national unity amid a fragmented island geography and addressing the country’s dilemma of being at the center of a major maritime crossroad.

In that respect, President Joko, since his inauguration in 2014, has ensured that the pursuit of ambitious, multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects, including dozens of seaports, is a key pillar of his maritime strategy. Indonesia has one of Asia’s highest logistics costs as a result of its lack of infrastructure. Another strategy that corresponds with Indonesia’s maritime nexus doctrine is a plan to develop a formidable naval capacity.

Indonesia’s Navy currently lacks even a minimum capacity to perform maritime enforcement tasks, let alone the capability to deter potential aggressors. The Navy’s 2015 budget was reportedly only $1.1 billion, which is barely sufficient to provide enough patrol boats to cover the entire expanse of Indonesia’s territorial seas. In 2014, the Joko administration indicated the need for the country’s defense planning to move away from the modest “minimum essential force” posture toward a more ambitious posture. Defense modernization should be seen as an inseparable part of President Joko’s maritime doctrine, since it is crucial to ensuring Indonesia’s territorial integrity and maintaining free and safe sea navigation.

Indonesia’s political culture

This essay divides Indonesia’s political culture into domestic and international categories. At the domestic level, there is nothing new: political parties and politicians tend to be opportunistic, regardless of their claims to certain ideologies, such as nationalist, moderate or Islamist. A prime example is the 2014 presidential election, when nationalist and Islamist parties joined ranks to support either President Joko or his losing opponent, the former general Prabowo Subianto, who is now the country’s opposition leader. The same phenomenon occurred during Jakarta’s hotly contested gubernatorial election earlier this year, where nationalist and Islamic parties joined hands to back one or another of the candidates.

This is a prime example of how flexible – and non-ideological – political parties are in Indonesia’s multiparty system, where secular and Islamist parties team up in some regional elections and are rivals in others. Indonesia’s current domestic political climate reflects the famous words of Henry Kissinger, the former US secretary of state: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

International affairs

Indonesia’s international political affairs are not much different from its domestic politics. The doctrine of an “active and independent” foreign policy has been in place since the 1950s. During the Cold War, Indonesia chose to be a non-bloc country and, together with several other nations such as Yugoslavia, Egypt, India and Ghana, established the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. It is probably true that the organization has been and remains unable to influence it member states and forge a united stance, but to say that the organization became irrelevant following the collapse of the Soviet Union bloc is also not accurate.

The question left is whether the NonAligned Movement is useful for the development of Indonesia’s maritime aspirations. This is clearly not a simple question, because no one can be confident or naive enough to say that the possibility of war between great-power nations can be eliminated through the promotion of international organizations/initiatives. Yet, it is also not true to say such international organizations/ initiatives have no impact; they can at least reduce tensions through diplomacy and prevent the outbreak of a major conflict.

During a seminar in Jakarta in January, organized by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Hideaki Kaneda, an adjunct fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and a retired vice admiral with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, said Indonesia should cooperate with Japan and other Indo-Pacific maritime states to be a counterbalance to China. He said China’s aggressive behavior was dangerous to all parties in the region. Kaneda understood that Indonesia’s geographical location is strategic in the Asia-Pacific’s current geopolitical climate.

Opposing this view, Adriana Elisabeth, an Indonesian researcher from LIPI, said Jakarta should be implementing an inclusive diplomacy so it can engage all major powers in the region, including China. She told us in an interview that Indonesia’s foreign policy was and must be based on its national interests, and no other country should dictate that for us. This perspective has clearly carried the day at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because Indonesia will rely on China for support via the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as investment, trade and defense cooperation. However, Indonesia also needs Japan, its second-largest investor. And on top of that, Jakarta also enjoys economic and defense cooperation with the other major players in the region such as the United States, Australia and India.

The impact?

The culture within Indonesian politics, either domestic or foreign, has both benefits and drawbacks. On the positive side, Indonesia’s pragmatic “active and independent” foreign policy doctrine gives it the flexibility to cooperate with all major powers, including the United States, China and even Russia. One piece of evidence to support this argument is Indonesia’s purchases of defense weaponry including fighter jets, helicopters and missile systems from the three countries, even though these major powers are at odds on numerous issues, ranging from Syria to the South China Sea.

The Indonesian government understands that it is able to optimize its strategic advantages in the current geopolitical climate, which in turn makes it possible for President Joko to implement the country’s maritime power vision. It is indeed trying to maximize its advantage by employing a pragmatic strategy. This strategy is known in Indonesian political philosophy as “politik bermain di dua kaki,” literary translated as “playing with two legs.” This means that one leg steps on one side and the other steps on the other side, so if one side is defeated, it is easy to jump to safety on the other side.

However, the government must also understand the drawbacks of playing a pragmatic strategy in the current geopolitical situation. First, there is the unpredictable US-China relationship, and second is the opportunistic culture within Indonesian domestic politics. After US President Donald J Trump took office in January, for example, tensions in the South China Sea entered a completely new phase. The uncertainty of the US-China relationship, despite recent cooperation over North Korea, could be worsened by opportunistic Indonesian politicians. As mentioned earlier, Indonesia’s domestic political climate is marked by an opportunistic culture fueled by political elites. This is indeed creating problems for the Joko administration in pursuing its foreign policy goals – including maritime-related ones – given the continual, exhaustive domestic political battles back in Jakarta. 


President Joko’s vision of a global maritime nexus is not a delusion of grandeur. The country has a long history of naval power, projected by ancient kingdoms before the centuries of colonial rule. These kingdoms played major roles at the regional and

international level under the concept of “Nusantara,” or Indonesian archipelago. Today’s notion of a global maritime nexus is also highly important to ensure the country’s unity and cohesiveness.

Indonesia’s stability is also crucial to its neighbors, but the current geopolitical climate in the Indo-Pacific, including the rivalry between the United States and China, could endanger stability within Indonesia. This could be why the Joko administration is trying to play it safe by implementing the “two legs” foreign policy doctrine.

Pragmatism and opportunism are not new in Indonesia. The two philosophical concepts have been intertwined for decades. Indonesian domestic politics is clouded by an opportunistic tradition, while Indonesian foreign policy is purely pragmatic.

But any major conflict in the region would leave Indonesia’s global maritime nexus dream in ashes. The country still needs more time to cement economic stability and security. As such, its only geopolitical option is to continue to endorse international organizations and initiatives to reduce tensions between the great powers – namely the United States and China – and head off any major conflict, though this would still not eliminate the threat of one.

Hakam Junus is a doctoral candidate at the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources and Security, at the University of Wollongong.
Dwinda Adrianto is a public relations consultant at Edelman Indonesia.

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