Maritime diplomacy – Indonesia style

Indonesia is the largest archipelago on the planet. So why do something about its limitless possibilities?

Maritime diplomacy – Indonesia style

The publication of Indonesia’s Maritime Diplomacy White Paper 2019 (hereafter simply the “White Paper”) was stipulated in the 2016-2019 Action Plan (specified in Annex II of Presidential Regulation No 16/2017). Published by the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs, the White Paper summarizes Indonesia’s principles and approaches to maritime diplomacy and its connection to Indonesia’s strategy of the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF). It also hints at intended courses of action in the implementation of maritime diplomacy.

Within Indonesian foreign policy circles, the term “maritime diplomacy,” often used by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, usually refers exclusively to acts of diplomacy relating to the negotiation of maritime boundaries with other littoral countries. Working under the legal umbrella of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), predominant features of Indonesian maritime diplomacy include continuous negotiation of Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone delimitations and management of important waterways, such as the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok straits. This view of maritime diplomacy is centralized and narrow; it is limited to diplomats while ignoring the potential contribution of other diplomatic tools. Maritime diplomacy could be understood in broader terms. As Christian La Mière wrote in the book “Maritime Diplomacy in the 21st Century,” maritime diplomacy includes the use of domestic assets to achieve foreign policy goals in the maritime domain. This entails the inclusion of the navy, and nongovernmental agencies related to the maritime domain, within the framework of maritime diplomacy. The 2019 White Paper takes a more inclusive turn by defining maritime diplomacy as “the implementation of foreign policy aimed at optimizing maritime potential for the fulfillment of national interests based on national provisions and international regulations.”

The generic language used in the White Paper opens up the possibility of nongovernment actors being involved in the process of maritime diplomacy, although their level of influence remains to be seen. Regardless, the new understanding of Indonesian maritime diplomacy is a small step toward the possibility of a more inclusive foreign policy approach.

Although the preface states the objective of the White Paper as outlining “Indonesia’s ‘outward-looking’ maritime vision,” a closer examination reveals the inward-looking nature of Indonesia’s maritime orientation. Although the GMF has been perceived as being a more extroverted policy through its bold claim of being a “fulcrum” between two major oceans, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s maritime plans over the last four years have mostly been focused on domestic development.

This is evident in the seven main pillars of Indonesia’s maritime diplomacy, namely: (1) enhancing leadership in bilateral, regional and multilateral initiatives; (2) embracing a more active role in maintaining peace and security at sea; (3) pursuing an active role in international maritime norm-building; (4) accelerating negotiations on Indonesia’s maritime boundaries with its neighbors; (5) accelerating the settlement of continental shelf boundaries; (6) increasing Indonesia’s presence in international maritime organizations; and (7) settling island names.

Of these seven main pillars, four are evidently internally oriented, while three are externally oriented. The inwardness of the policy is defended in the White Paper, stating the necessity of building one’s own capabilities before being able to engage other countries.

Great power politics

In international relations, the White Paper seems to favor China immensely, while remaining ambivalent on Indonesia-United States relations. Indonesia perceives China as a peaceful rising power that would be beneficial to its interests. The White Paper particularly emphasizes the potential benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it provides the opportunity to “expand Indonesia’s access to international trade.”

Simultaneously, Indonesia has adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to the other potential effects of the BRI in the region. On the other hand, Indonesia sees US involvement in the Asia-Pacific as “declining” and “lacking in … fair, peaceful, consistent, and transparent presence.” Indonesia positions itself as a pragmatic middleman, advocating US ratification of UNCLOS and peaceful coexistence between the United States and China. This approach to great-power politics is nothing new and has been a staple of Indonesia’s foreign policy practice.
Curiously, the White Paper makes little mention of the utility of multilateralism in achieving these maritime interests. In multilateral forums such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, Indonesia has made commendable efforts to facilitate confidence-building efforts.

Traditional and nontraditional concerns

The section of the White Paper that assesses challenges awkwardly divides maritime challenges into two broad categories: traditional and nontraditional. Traditional challenges, which include potential military aggression, are to be dealt with through “strengthening maritime defense and security systems” and maintaining a “proportional posture,” two measures that have been major priorities of the Joko administration.

However, these measures are not discussed in depth and one would need to refer to the 2016-2019 Action Plan to get a glimpse of what a “proportional posture” entails. The White Paper then proposes the use of maritime diplomacy as a preventive measure, namely through the settlement of maritime territorial delimitation, enhancing law enforcement and norm-building. It also notes traditional challenges could stem from an escalation of nontraditional issues, such as “state-sponsored illegal fishing.”

Nontraditional challenges include cybersecurity of ports, maritime waste management and climate change. While the cyber aspect is underexplained, the White Paper devotes almost four pages to maritime plastic pollution, oil spills and the effects of climate change, which are discussed in significant depth with substantial quantitative data. The well-reasoned environmental concerns mirror its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, a declaration of nationally set objectives under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which Indonesia submitted prior to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

As an archipelagic state, it would make sense that Indonesia would put considerable emphasis on the maritime environment. However, as a supposedly overarching document outlining the general direction of Indonesian maritime diplomacy, it is curious that the other parts of the White Paper related to maritime diplomacy are not given similar in-depth treatment, such as the importance of multilateralism in advancing Indonesian maritime interests. As chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association from 2015 to 2017, Indonesia’s main contribution was the creation of the IORA Concord, which affirmed the organization’s commitment to establish good order at sea. The Concord represents a “signature” diplomacy move by Indonesia, which since the 1960s has advocated for institution-building based on cooperative norms. The White Paper, however, seems to cast this into the background.

Maritime diplomacy with Indonesian characteristics?

As the White Paper closes with a summary of both planned objectives and already-implemented actions, it leaves much to be desired. The document’s utility remains questionable, especially when considering the pressing issue of managing the numerous maritime-related agencies and directing them toward a unified understanding of their role in Indonesia’s grand scheme of maritime diplomacy. It also seems to overlook the many instruments the country already has in place to implement its maritime diplomacy goals.

The optimist can say the White Paper is an early summary of an Indonesian concept of maritime diplomacy. The document rightly embraces an inclusive approach for a country moving on from a narrow conception of maritime diplomacy. It also shows that Indonesia remains committed to contributing to the creation of inclusive good order at sea in the Indo-Pacific, as it has been since the Djuanda Declaration in 1957.

Aside from these strengths, Indonesia is still far from discovering “maritime diplomacy with Indonesian characteristics.” To achieve this, intensive dialogue is required between policymakers and epistemic communities. Further conceptual development requires epistemic communities to dig through and critically develop the scarce literature on Indonesian maritime diplomacy in order to increase discursive power. Practical applications of maritime diplomacy require policymakers to consider bolstering diplomatic tools: the Indonesian Navy, diplomats and maritime-oriented nongovernment organizations.

I Gusti Bagus Dharma Agastia is a lecturer in international relations at President University in Cikarang, West Java Province.

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