Indonesia: Widodo government heralds more muscular strategic posture
21 Nov 2014|
Utilitiesman 3rd Class Orestes Chavez and an Indonesian Marine take a break from placing tile in an Indonesian elementary school to arm wrestle.

Prior to President Joko Widodo’s inauguration, one of his principal advisers lamented Indonesia’s weak state mentality. In a critique of Indonesia’s defence posture, which he characterised as ‘too passive’, he quipped to seminar participants that Indonesia’s South-China-Sea-located ‘Natuna [Islands] would be snatched and Indonesia forced to snatch them back again!’

Not so, if the more robust defence of Indonesia’s airspace is anything to go by. In the last few weeks, the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) has scrambled its Russian-made Sukhoi fighters on three separate occasions to intercept civil aircraft traversing Indonesia’s airspace without necessary flight clearances.

Although Indonesia has scrambled its fighters previously in response to perceived incursions, three incidents in as many weeks is unprecedented. The incidents have undoubtedly provided the Sukhoi pilots from Makassar’s Sultan Hasanuddin Air Base with some useful combat training experience, but they also indicate a more muscular strategic posture by the Widodo government.

Indonesia’s military brass, it seems, is getting more serious about defending the country’s territorial integrity. The nation’s diplomats, meanwhile, are pursuing a foreign policy predicated on a more hard-nosed calculus of national interests.

Widodo’s global maritime axis doctrine (poros maritim dunia), the centrepiece of his foreign policy platform, can best be understood as the geopolitical component of a broader maritime development agenda. Its defence aspects include (PDF) a boost to Indonesia’s naval capabilities, enhanced Indian Ocean defence diplomacy, and a strong emphasis on the protection of Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty and the security and welfare of its outer islands.

Widodo’s projected increase in Indonesia’s defence spending from 0.8 to 1.5%of GDP within five years is to be concentrated on building naval capabilities. It remains highly contingent upon global economic growth rates and the success of further macroeconomic reform within Indonesia. But if achieved, it would see a doubling in Indonesia’s defence spending from around $7.83 billion (IDR 83 trillion) to $15 billion.

There is, of course, considerable policy continuity with the previous government. The Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) administration oversaw both a relatively rapid increase in defence expenditure and the procurement and/or indigenous production of more modern military air and naval platforms. Those include new Changbogo-class diesel electric submarines; Sigma corvettes; KCR-60/KCR-40 missile attack craft; stealth trimaran patrol craft and AS565 Panther helicopters with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

However, Widodo has given prioritisation of the seas greater institutional substance. This is evident in his appointment of former chief of naval staff Admiral (retd) Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno as the powerful Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs and in his decision to establish a new Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs led by distinguished scientist and marine resources expert, Indroyono Soesilo.

Whilst the Indonesian Armed Forces has indicated a greater willingness to respond to territorial incursions with displays of hard power, diplomats are recalibrating foreign policy settings to reflect redefined national interests. Such interests are predicated upon a maritime-led model of economic growth and the robust defence of both the country’s political and territorial sovereignty.

Under the new government, SBY’s ‘one thousand friends, zero enemies’ mantra has been consigned to the historical dustbin by Widodo’s advisers. The country’s diplomatic motto can now more accurately be characterised as ‘pro-people’ and ‘pro-growth’. Implicit in this is a rejection of a previous foreign policy approach perceived as over-conciliatory and lacking in substance.

Indonesia’s new foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, is now ‘expected to put more attention on bilateral relations, which would directly benefit Indonesia rather than multilateral processes’. Coming from influential Widodo adviser, Rizal Sukma, who has previously expounded the need for a ‘post-ASEAN foreign policy’, this is code for a more pragmatic appraisal of ASEAN’s utility to Indonesia’s foreign policy interests.

In short, Indonesia looks set to test ASEAN’s consensus norms, and won’t retreat from offending its neighbours. ‘To uphold our political sovereignty, what we must do is preserve the sovereignty of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. We’ll do this firmly and clearly’, stated new foreign minister Retno Marsudi.

It seems demands that Indonesia discard its weak-state mentality are finally beginning to have real military and diplomatic consequences.

Greta Nabbs-Keller is the director of Dragonminster Consulting, a Brisbane-based company providing Indonesia expertise to government, university and private sector clients. Image courtesy of Flickr user slapheap.