Blowing Up Fishing Vessels is Not Enough to Be a Global Maritime Fulcrum

By Conor Cronin & Norashiqin Toh —

The Indonesian Navy’s KRI Tenggiri, used to patrol Indonesian waters for illegal fishing vessels. President Joko Widodo has overseen a stern crackdown on illegal fishing by foreign vessels. Source: Wikimedia user Seasickers, public domain.

The Indonesian Navy’s KRI Tenggiri, used to patrol Indonesian waters for illegal fishing vessels. President Joko Widodo has overseen a stern crackdown on illegal fishing by foreign vessels. Source: Wikimedia user Seasickers, public domain.

Indonesian maritime affairs and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti on June 6 said the government will sink 30 more foreign-flagged vessels caught for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in Indonesian waters, the latest casualties in a crackdown started by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2014. As Jokowi attempts to transform Indonesia into a leading maritime nation, blowing up illegal vessels in a war on IUU fishing has been the government’s most public demonstration of strengthened maritime security. However, it is vital that Indonesia focuses on the other, more complex components of Jokowi’s global maritime fulcrum (GMF) doctrine if it hopes to become the regional maritime focal point.

The GMF doctrine focuses on a revival of Indonesia’s maritime identity. It seeks to revive the country’s maritime culture, secure maritime resources, and bolster the country’s maritime defenses through naval development. It also looks to increase connectivity between the country’s 17,000 islands and resolve border disputes through maritime diplomacy. Jokowi saw that Indonesia’s archipelagic geography, which links the Pacific and Indian oceans, could position his country to become an “Indo-Pacific power” based on these five pillars, but so far efforts on most of those principles have been scant.

According to government estimates, Indonesia loses well over $20 billion a year to illegal fishing. Noting that 90 percent of the 5,400 boats operating in Indonesia’s waters every day are illegal, Jokowi’s administration has adopted a tough stance on the issue. Since the end of 2014, Jokowi has ordered the destruction of at least 174 seized illegal fishing vessels to deter others from operating near Indonesia. Susi on June 6 also said that Jokowi has signed a presidential regulation banning foreign vessels from fishing in Indonesian waters.

For all its popularity among Indonesians, however, sinking illegal fishing vessels is low-hanging fruit in the nation’s quest to become a maritime power. Theatrically blowing up boats may stir nationalist pride and project the image of an efficient government, but the ships of small-time fishermen are easy targets. Dismantling the mafia networks that drive IUU fishing and weeding out corrupt officials who facilitate the plundering of resources remain far greater challenges to securing Indonesia’s maritime economy. Further, the dramatic sinking of ships has drawn criticism from foreign governments and caused diplomatic tension, contradicting the GMF’s goal of advancing maritime diplomacy.

Such symbolic displays of power highlight the reality of Indonesia’s woefully underdeveloped navy, which is still struggling to recover from former president Suharto’s bias in favor of the army. Many of the navy’s ships are over 50 years old and outdated or non-operational. Despite signing a contract with Daewoo of South Korea in 2011 to secure three modern attack submarines by 2020, the imminent decommissioning of its two current attack submarines means the submarine program is barely holding even.

As the Indonesian navy continues to retire old ships, plans from the previous administration to create a 274-ship strong littoral navy by 2024 seem increasingly unachievable. While Indonesia’s recent defense white paper referenced the GMF at multiple junctures, it failed to provide a concrete blueprint for naval development. The white paper acknowledges that to establish the GMF policy, the government needs to build up Indonesia’s maritime defense power and support it with satellite technology and drone systems. Details on procurement targets and efforts remain elusive. With only two attack submarines, six frigates, and 25 corvettes, Indonesia, the largest nation in ASEAN, has a weaker navy than Singapore, the smallest.

Beyond its halting naval development, Indonesia has also had mixed success in bolstering its maritime infrastructure. Logistics costs in Indonesia amount to 24 percent of its gross domestic product, a strain on the country’s economic growth and the competitiveness of Indonesian goods. To enhance connectivity between islands and reduce these costs, Jokowi launched the maritime highway initiative, a plan to build and upgrade 24 commercial seaports and procure hundreds of freight and passenger vessels.

However, construction of these ports has been slower than hoped. For example, the Kuala Tanjung port in North Sumatra, intended to be a major hub on the Strait of Malacca, has fallen months behind schedule. Delays in permits and the lack of coordination between the central and local governments continue to plague projects. Indonesia is also in need of more investors. Since Jokowi made a pitch for investors at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO summit, Indonesia has attracted some support from countries such as Japan, but still requires an additional $50 billion in investments in maritime and logistics infrastructure over the next five to 10 years.

The attempt to resolve maritime border disputes has seen some progress recently, with Jokowi taking special interest in the contested waters off the coast of the Natuna islands. By aggressively pursuing Chinese fishing boats with Indonesian naval vessels and holding a cabinet meeting aboard a warship in the waters that China says overlap with its “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea, Jokowi has sent a clear message to China on the inviolability of Indonesian waters. But using Indonesian warships to send that message and holding the cabinet meeting as a publicity stunt veers away from the GMF principle of resolving border disputes with maritime diplomacy and toward cheaper nationalism like exploding fishing vessels.

If Jokowi hopes to promote maritime diplomacy as part of his GMF doctrine, an important step will be for Indonesia to strongly support the role of international law in the upcoming arbitration decision in the Philippines case against China in the South China Sea. Empowering multilateral approaches and initiatives such as the trilateral joint patrols with Malaysia and the Philippines in the Sulu Sea is a more effective diplomatic way to address border issues than demonstrations of maritime might and will further boost Indonesia’s role as global maritime fulcrum.

Mr. Conor Cronin is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @ConorCroninDC. Ms. Norashiqin Toh is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program.


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