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Indonesia’s ‘Maritime Fulcrum’ – Foreign Policy Restructuring Under Jokowi

In January 2015, Indonesia’s President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo mandated his foreign policy priorities under three pillars: maintaining Indonesian sovereignty, enhancing the protection of Indonesian citizens abroad, and intensifying economic diplomacy. These priorities are conducive to the ‘people-centred’, ‘results-driven’ restructuring of foreign policy under the Jokowi Administration. Essentially, this means that Jokowi is inclined to only pursue foreign policy that can yield tangible benefits for his domestic reform agenda to improve the lives of ordinary Indonesians.

So far Jokowi’s signature foreign policy is regarded as the Global Maritime Fulcrum doctrine. Jokowi’s maritime vision for Indonesia has become a focal point to offset the widespread perception that his foreign policy is inward looking and reflects a ‘narrow nationalism.’ This perception stands in direct contrast to his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s championing of an outward looking, multilateral approach to Indonesian foreign policy.

The global maritime fulcrum includes five pillars: reviving Indonesia’s maritime culture as a basis of national identity; developing the fisheries industry and food security; boosting Indonesia’s maritime economy; using maritime diplomacy to mitigate security concerns; and protecting Indonesia’s sovereignty by bolstering maritime defences.

The rationale behind the doctrine is that it carries nationalist, strategic, and economic benefits for Indonesia. A closer examination reveals that the policy’s objectives remain fundamentally geared towards reinforcing domestic prosperity and national resilience rather than broader geostrategic ambitions (likely to the dismay of defence wonks).

Jokowi strongly believes the future of Indonesian prosperity rests on the revival of its maritime culture, and Indonesia’s ability to manage challenges and seize opportunities presented by its unique geography.

Addressing the integration challenges presented by Indonesia’s geography comprising 17 000 islands is Jokowi’s principal mission. He seeks to transform this burden into an economic asset by taking advantage of Indonesia as a nexus between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

At present, the Indonesian economy suffers from weak integration due to poor maritime infrastructure and the high costs of transporting goods between islands. Two-thirds of Indonesia’s total trade is handled by Jakarta’s Tanjung Priok Port, which ranks among Southeast Asia’s least efficient due to overwhelming levels of congestion.

Jokowi’s strategy is to utilise bilateral trade with Indo-Pacific powers – such as China, Japan, India, and South Africa – whose appetites for investment are complementary with Indonesia’s vast infrastructure funding gap. Indonesia’s GDP is growing at a six-year low of just over 5%, and it currently requires more than $6 billion USD to build the 24 necessary new seaports and deep seaports. At the APEC Summit in 2014, Jokowi urged countries to invest in Indonesian infrastructure: “This is your opportunity,” he repeatedly implored.

Furthermore, an underfunded navy and poor port infrastructure have resulted in widespread piracy, unpatrolled people smuggling, and rampant illegal fishing. Jokowi frequently cites that 5000 fishing boats operate illegally in Indonesian waters on a daily basis. In a nationalist tenor, Jokowi sent a clear message that Indonesia would no longer tolerate violations of its territorial integrity by sinking 38 illegal fishing boats on the 70th anniversary of its independence in August. Jokowi believes that stamping out illegal fishing will lead to the elimination of broader non-traditional security challenges such as human trafficking, smuggling, and drugs.

Indonesia’s pressing economic imperatives will likely relegate its ongoing plans for military modernisation to the sidelines, particularly as Jakarta’s defence budget will be cut for the first time in six years in 2016. Jokowi’s strategic priorities will focus on eradicating illegal fishing and protecting Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty. The Jokowi Administration is currently in the process of pursuing a multilateral framework with ASEAN, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, and Australia by pushing for illegal fishing to be classified as a transnational crime. Jokowi’s conviction towards this aspect of the Maritime Fulcrum provides a valuable opportunity to pursue meaningful multilateral cooperation in what has been an apprehensive year for the Indo-Pacific region, and for Indonesia to reinvigorate its role as Southeast Asia’s de facto leader.

Sophie Qin is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Eduardo M. C. (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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