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Power plays in Indonesian waters

27 February 2018

The new Maritime Security Agency has only heightened competition in the Navy-dominated governance of Indonesian maritime security, Muhamad Arif writes.

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed the presidential regulation on the establishment of the country’s Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut or BAKAMLA) on 8 December 2014, the mood among interested observers was bright. The complicated management of Indonesian maritime security – for which no less than twelve national agencies had responsibility – would finally be settled. The country would soon have a dedicated coastguard to carry out most of the law enforcement functions in Indonesian maritime jurisdictions.

The vision for BAKAMLA was that it would work alongside the Indonesian Navy, which could finally focus on building its much-needed war-fighting capability amidst the increasingly volatile geopolitics of the region. This optimism was justified since the regulation was among the first signed by a President who came to power with a vision to build the geographically strategic country as a prominent maritime power. Or so it was thought.

Three years after the establishment of BAKAMLA, the reality is still a far cry from the original vision. Indonesian maritime security governance is still complicated by well-known problems such as inter-agency competition, overlapping legal frameworks, separate information and intelligence management systems, as well as limited and scattered resources.

In the last couple of years, the number of security violations in Indonesian waters and jurisdictions has decreased substantially. But this outcome is actually a result of sporadic, sub-efficient and, in some cases, conflicting policy directions. Indonesia’s pioneering National Maritime Policy with its attached Action Plan, released by the government in 2016, have not done much to tackle the problems on the ground.

The problems with Indonesian maritime security governance are the result of the lack of national consensus on the country’s approach to maritime security. A study endorsed by BAKAMLA in 2015, for instance, argues for shifting the paradigm from ‘multiple agencies, single function’ to ‘single agency, multiple functions’. This would involve establishing a dedicated civilian maritime law enforcement agency and BAKAMLA, the authors conclude, is well-placed to take up that responsibility.

In fact, the presidential regulation on the establishment of BAKAMLA suggests that it is supposed to take the leading role in coordinating maritime security in Indonesian waters. It tasks the agency, among others, to conduct patrols to ensure security and safety in Indonesian maritime jurisdictions, formulate national policy on maritime security and safety, implement an early warning system, and synergise and monitor patrols by other agencies. On paper, this was supposed to mean that BAKAMLA would have centralised authority to assign and define the roles and tasks of other agencies.

Today, it seems like the notion of BAKAMLA becoming the single agency with multiple functions has lost out to persisting orthodoxy. No one seems to be quite happy to be told what to do by a newly established agency, least of all established institutions such as the Navy or the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Affairs. Consequently, there has been hardly any significant alteration in the legal framework, budgeting mechanism or operations.

The Action Plan, for instance, fails to reflect the supposed role of BAKAMLA as the leading actor in Indonesian maritime security with a similar, if not greater, focus and budget given to other agencies. As a result, its intended leading role is confused by the continuing expansion of other maritime security agencies, making coordination as complicated as ever before.

Due to its limited assets, BAKAMLA still needs to rely on the capabilities and capacities of other agencies in conducting joint operations. In some instances, these joint operations are compromised by the conflicting schedules and operational plans of the participating agencies. BAKAMLA is practically the Indonesian coast guard only to the extent that it serves as the contact point for international coast guard coordination.

Having said that, it is fair to conclude that Indonesia has never been really familiar with the concept of a coast guard as a dedicated civilian maritime law enforcement with a clear delineation of responsibilities vis-à-vis other agencies. This especially true in relation to the Navy, which used to assume the dominant role in maritime security governance.

The archipelagic geographical characteristics of the country make maritime security a highly complicated challenge. Maritime defence and security assets need to be dispersed in archipelagic waters in addition to territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. The end of the Cold War and the introduction into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have provided a rationale for many countries to develop coast guards, with their navies given more space to focus on developing their war-fighting capability. Indonesia, however, has found it challenging to follow this trend.

Informed by a subjective interpretation of the country’s geographical characteristics, threat assessment and strategic history, the Indonesian Navy retains the dominant role in the governance of the country’s maritime security. With the limited resources available, and the level of threat, both traditional and non-traditional, continuing to increase, the country can no longer afford to have a duplication of effort and capacity that hinders efficient and effective maritime security governance. Indonesia needs a new consensus on how to approach this challenge.

This piece was first published by Policy Forum.net, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School. https://www.policyforum.net/power-plays-indonesian-waters/. This article is based on aspects of the author’s paper in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies: Strategic Culture and Indonesian Maritime Security, co-authored by Dr Yandry Kurniwan.

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