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Indonesia’s U.S.-China balancing act is playing out at sea

The shifting of Jakarta's naval headquarters to the edge of the South China sea was much more than a strategic military move.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

In November 2020, Indonesia announced plans to permanently move its naval headquarters to the Natuna Islands, at the edge of the South China Sea, near waters claimed by both Jakarta and Beijing. This rare show of force against China seemed to signal Indonesia’s newfound willingness to defend its coastal waters.

To the average observer, this decision represents a departure from what Indonesia’s first vice president, Mohammad Hatta, characterized in 1948 as “rowing between two reefs”: engaging with great powers like the U.S. and China, while strategically balancing each nations’ interests in the archipelago. Indonesia, a Muslim-majority democracy with the world’s fourth largest population, oversees some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, making it critical to the struggle for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. But the incoming Biden administration could do more than just strengthen its relationship with Indonesia in order to counterbalance China; it must recognize the more nuanced picture that these recent decisions represent for Indonesia’s maritime security, as well as for the national security interests of the United States. 

As noted in the recent Quincy Institute report, the incoming administration will inherit a U.S. foreign policy that has neglected economic engagement and diplomatic cooperation in East Asia in favor of military dominance and political control. This has not only served to escalate tensions with Beijing; it has also neglected how maritime security interrelates with issues surrounding human, economic, and marine environmental security. 

East Asia contains within it the global leaders in fisheries production, the world’s busiest shipping lanes and trade routes, and the most biodiverse and productive oceans on the planet. A long list of interrelated factors threatens to undermine these critical resources: illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing has wreaked havoc on fragile ecosystems; piracy, kidnappings, and human trafficking at sea, including the proliferation of terrorist organizations like the Abu Sayyaf Group, have disrupted vital trade routes; and kidnappings and other attacks on coastal areas have damaged the reputations of thriving coastal tourism destinations. 

As the interactive Stable Seas Platform highlights, international cooperation, rule of law, coastal welfare, healthy fisheries, and the prevention of illicit activities are all crucial to a secure maritime environment. Solving just one of these problems necessarily means taking the others into account; truly understanding and supporting maritime security must go beyond the narrow notion of the absence of war. 

If we ignore this more holistic lens, Indonesia’s recent strategic decisions -- from moving its naval base to Natuna to its recent history of seizing illegal Chinese fishing vessels — could be seen as strictly preserving its own national and maritime security and sovereignty: And the televised explosion of those illegal fishing vessels at the command of Indonesia’s former charismatic and tattooed Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti has certainly garnered attention. 

But these actions have significance beyond geopolitical or economic tensions with China. Spanning across 17,000 islands, kaleidoscopic systems of coral reefs supply 15 percent of Indonesia’s GDP, derived from fishing, aquaculture, and a vibrant marine tourism industry. Whether seizing and destroying nearly 400 illegal fishing vessels or pledging $1 billion a year to reduce plastic pollution, Indonesia has demonstrated its desire to enact solutions to a range of complex and interrelated maritime security challenges.

While the oceans have been essential to economic development throughout human history, their value has been reassessed in recent years to incorporate important resources such as deep-sea minerals, renewable energy potential, aquaculture, and coastal tourism. First proposed at the 2012 Rio World Summit, the concepts of “blue economy” and “blue growth,” representing the sustainable use of these vast resources, have since been widely recognized and adopted. A secure marine environment is a precondition for sustainable development and blue growth. Indonesia’s approaches towards safeguarding its marine world should be understood as an effort to preserve all aspects of maritime security—including the looming threats posed by climate change. 

Failures in ocean governance occur when links between all dimensions of maritime security are not adequately considered or fully known. The United States has struggled to view maritime security issues in East Asia with the same nuanced understanding, particularly as tensions with China have escalated over the last several years. While President Obama attempted to “rebalance” relations in East Asia during his time in office — including negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), appointing the first U.S. ambassador to ASEAN, and normalizing relations with Myanmar as it re-emerged on the world stage — the Trump Administration reverted to a transactional and often openly belligerent stance towards China. 

This increasingly aggressive stance towards Beijing could not occur at a more dangerous moment for the world. As the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, global cooperation — and especially a working relationship between the United States and China—is needed more than ever. The same will be true in order to address the looming threats climate change poses to our global oceans. 

With 2020 tied for the hottest year on record, mass coral bleaching events, intensifying ocean acidification, and widespread loss of biodiversity in fisheries worldwide will only become more common as the planet warms. The borders and sovereignty of archipelagic nations, from Indonesia to the Maldives, will be in flux or even in danger of disappearing entirely. When parts or entire nations are simply wiped off the map, redefining what maritime security will be challenging, to say the least. The current projected ocean temperature increase of 1-4 degrees Centigrade by 2100 will be catastrophic to ocean health — and to the human lives and global economic security inextricably linked to it.  

The incoming Biden administration will face many challenges in the coming years. With climate change and rebalancing relations with China at the top of the agenda, it could learn from Indonesia’s approach on both. By recognizing the marine environment of East Asia as more than just an area to contain China’s growing influence, it can assist this region in realizing the vast potential the ocean, which produces an estimated 50-80 percent of global oxygen and absorbs 90 percent of excess heat from global warming, offers to combat climate change. Safeguarding ocean health must be at the top of the U.S. climate change agenda. 

In terms of foreign policy, Washington can strike a balance between military and diplomatic engagement in the region by recognizing the marine realm — and the disputes in the South China Sea — as one critical not just to national security, but also to human resilience, economic growth, and the global marine environment. Beyond just forging a stronger alliance with countries like Indonesia, the United States should incorporate the notion of “maritime security communities” in which communities and nations work together to identify and resolve distinct threats through everyday transnational collaboration, rather than formal treaties or declarations. Diplomatic engagement is essential, but the role and interaction of lower and mid-level security and scientific experts must also be incorporated into the larger strategy. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is a mere dress rehearsal for the unprecedented global cooperation needed to solve the climate change crisis. The multitude of threats posed by climate change can no longer be separated from geopolitics; stronger maritime governance and cooperation can help to mitigate both of these challenges. Overt displays of military strength will not win this battle. As Indonesia has known for many decades, a delicate balancing act between safeguarding stability and forging a productive partnership is required. With climate change also at the forefront of the new administration’s policy agenda, Indonesia offers useful lessons — in both rowing between the reefs as well as preserving their ecological existence — and the United States should take note.  

Ceremony of Anniversary Indonesian Eastern Navy a.k.a Koarmatim at Kodikal, Tanjung Perak. January 11, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia. (Ragil SP/Shutterstock)
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