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Jakarta Post

Indonesia, ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific (Part 2 of 2)

  • Rizal Sukma
    Rizal Sukma

    Indonesian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland and the International Maritime Organization (IMO)

Jakarta   /   Fri, August 30, 2019   /   09:04 am
Indonesia, ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific (Part 2 of 2) Seen in this light, Indonesia’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific idea is a foreign policy operationalization of a national maritime vision. This is why the burden and responsibility of moving from hope to policy, from expectation to strategy, rests first and foremost with Indonesia. (Shutterstock/File)

Five years ago, on Oct. 20, 2014, in his inaugural speech, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo declared, “We have to work hard to rebuild Indonesia as a maritime nation. We have far too long turned our back on the seas, the oceans, the straits, and the bays. It is time to turn everything around so that in the sea we will triumph.” Jalasveva Jayamahe!

It is a simple proclamation. Yet, it carries a powerful message. It reminds all Indonesians that we were once a maritime power. It declares that it is now our duty to reclaim that identity.

This idea was then articulated in greater detail at the ninth East Asia Summit (EAS) in Myanmar in November 2014.

In his speech, President Jokowi clearly explained how Indonesia would transform itself into a Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), by focusing on the five pillars of the GMF: maritime culture, maritime resources, maritime infrastructure and connectivity, maritime diplomacy and maritime safety and security. (It has been expanded into seven pillars, with human resources development and maritime space added.)

Seen in this light, Indonesia’s embrace of the Indo-Pacific idea is a foreign policy operationalization of a national maritime vision. This is why the burden and responsibility of moving from hope to policy, from expectation to strategy, rests first and foremost with Indonesia.

As the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific (AOIP) originates from Indonesia, it is logical to expect that Indonesia would continue to take the lead in ensuring that the AOIP does what it is meant to do. The question is: What should we do next?

The reconceptualization of the regional order — the Indo-Pacific — is a strategic necessity for Indonesia, as well as ASEAN. Now we need to ensure that the AOIP is not another exercise in norm-setting.

However, the current challenges dictate us to also realize that we can no longer just cling to the idea that norms alone can define how states, especially great powers, behave toward each other. We now need to follow through those norms with clear-headed thinking on what to do next, in a much more realistic and pragmatic way.

Indonesia under President Jokowi is now trying to balance past preference for norm-setting/norm-building with a more action-oriented, more realist, interest-driven initiative in foreign policy. This points to two imperatives for Indonesia.

First, it is imperative for Indonesia to continue implementing the GMF agenda comprehensively. Second, it is also imperative for Indonesia to continue driving the discussion within ASEAN on a common policy and strategy to navigate the Indo-Pacific.

With regard to the first imperative, five clusters of action are in order.

First, we must reclaim, revive and consolidate our maritime culture and identity. Indonesia understands that its identity, prosperity and its future depend on how we manage the ocean. We must learn, relearn and unlearn everything about the sea. We should teach our children that the sea is not a mystery, but an opportunity.

Second, we must secure, utilize and preserve our maritime resources. Our marine resources are, first and foremost, for all Indonesians to enjoy. Yet, we also realize that the sea is a global public entity, and we must work to ensure it stays that way.

Third, we must develop maritime infrastructure and connectivity. That is why we continue to focus on building the maritime highway, deep-sea ports, logistics, shipbuilding and marine tourism. These priorities will transform Indonesia into a truly archipelagic state united, not divided, by the sea.

Fourth, we must work with our partners within the Pacific and the Indian Ocean region and around the world. We must conduct a maritime-oriented foreign policy and diplomacy. We should start drawing a coherent plan on how we will play our role in our new space of engagement — the Indo-Pacific. We need an Indo-Pacific strategy, a strategy that elevates the place of the maritime element, and integrates the GMF pillars, in our foreign policy thinking and conduct.

Fifth, as a fulcrum of the two strategic oceans, Indonesia must develop and strengthen its maritime defense capability. We need to do this, not only to defend our sovereignty and secure our maritime resources, but also to fulfill our responsibility in ensuring safety of navigation and maritime security in the region.

With regard to the second imperative, there are five key issues that Indonesia might want to consider.

First, Indonesia should continue to encourage ASEAN to provide greater strategic clarity to the AOIP. This should begin by articulating clearly what functions the AOIP should serve. Strategic ambiguity, while sometimes necessary, might not help ASEAN in preserving its strategic relevance.

For example, ASEAN leaders rightly assert that the AOIP is aimed at “upholding the rules-based regional architecture”. Yet, we need to have a clearer idea on how ASEAN would do that.

Second, for the AOIP to be meaningful, it requires a platform. The EAS has the potential to become such a platform. We should generate and stimulate national and regional debates and conversations on how the EAS can be better institutionalized. There have been some ideas out there, of which Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) Memorandum No. 26/2014 remains one of the best proposals so far.

Third, ASEAN will not be able to retain its centrality and play a meaningful role in the Indo-Pacific unless it speaks with one voice on how to manage its relations with extra-regional powers. The agreement on the AOIP is the right step toward that direction. Yet, the challenge is far greater than having an agreement on a five-page document. Indonesia should revive the idea to evaluate the ASEAN Charter, and assess how it can be improved to better equip ASEAN to deal with current and future challenges. After all, strengthening unity — speaking with one voice — and strong institutional capacity is a key to ASEAN’s centrality.

Fourth, Indonesia should take the lead in encouraging ASEAN to develop a sharper focus on strengthening a rules-based maritime order. For example, ASEAN has to improve its capability and role in contributing to good governance at sea. ASEAN needs to build a coalition of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defenders. We must strengthen international consensus on the sea as a global public goods.

Fifth, we need to start persuading ASEAN to think outside the box. ASEAN needs to think about a strategy on how to restrain great powers. ASEAN should refine and consolidate its soft-balancing strategy, a strategy of “legitimacy denial”. It should ensure that the legitimacy of threatening action by great powers becomes questionable in the eyes of the international community.

Indonesia’s deep commitment reflects our sense of regional responsibility and obligation to ensure that peace remains the norm, and to ensure that sustainable prosperity is possible. Our key strategic interest in the region is to maintain ASEAN’s strategic autonomy.

Our message to all major powers is clear: Do not turn our region into an arena for strategic rivalry among yourselves. Join us instead in strengthening the rules-based regional order, in an inclusive partnership to fulfill the promise of the Asian Century.

As for Indonesia, as a country with a deep sense of regional entitlement, and a responsible member of international society, we will not scale down our international activism. It is with the international community that we must work to deliver the promise of prosperity and stability to our people at home.


The writer is the Indonesian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ireland and the International Maritime Organization. The article was based on his presentation at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Lecture Series on Regional Dynamics on Aug. 28.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.