Diplomacy can help calm troubled sea
Graham Gerard Ong, The Straits Times, Asia News Network, Singapore
The dispatch of three Indonesian warships to the Sulawesi Sea last week, in protest against Malaysia's decision to award a contract to an Anglo-Dutch firm to explore and mine the Ambalat and East Ambalat oil and gas blocks, may appear to be a straightforward case of "gunboat diplomacy".
Until a few days ago, the issue had remained largely dormant because Malaysia appeared to be resolved to tackle it through diplomatic rather than military means.
Now, the latest reports indicate a significant escalation in tensions between the two countries after a confrontation between a Malaysian and an Indonesian warship on Saturday.
The patrolling Malaysian warship seemed to have informed its Indonesian counterpart that it had encroached into Malaysian waters near Sebatik island in the Sulawesi Sea. In the row that followed, the Malaysian vessel apparently decided to withdraw when the Indonesian vessel gave pursuit.
The significance of Sebatik island, which is approximately 215 nautical miles (398km) north-east of the Ambalat blocks, was underlined on Monday when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the southern part of the island. The area has also become a temporary shelter for Indonesians fleeing a Malaysian crackdown against illegal workers.
This confirms that the disputes over the Ambalat blocks and Malaysia's repatriation of illegal Indonesian immigrants are intertwined and have to be dealt with simultaneously.
However, any broader analysis of this crisis cannot avoid the recognition that it was Indonesia which initiated it by sending a naval presence to the area.
An explanation for its actions may be found in the works of the famous 19th-century naval historian and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. In his classic The Influence Of Sea Power Upon History, he argued that naval power is the key to success in international politics.
The navy's importance rests on two key pillars: Its ability to affect events on land, and its ability to control the use of the sea (or "command of the sea" as Mahan called it). The latter pertains to the ability to protect one's maritime assets and to project military power ashore while denying the opposition the means of counteraction.
Unlike the littoral states of Singapore and Malaysia, the Indonesian navy played a vital role in the formation of the country's national consciousness after the end of World War II -- a consciousness not unrelated to Indonesia once being the locus of the Sriwijaya and Majapahit maritime empires between the 7th and 16th centuries.
Despite possessing only wooden ships, a few landing craft and weapons left over by imperial Japan, Indonesia, soon after the proclamation of its independence from the Dutch, created the Agency of the People's Security Sea Service, the progenitor of the Republic of Indonesia Navy (renamed in 1970 as the Navy of the Indonesian Armed Forces).
Its role was then further embellished through its contribution in the independence war against the Dutch between 1945 and 1949.
Though the Indonesian military's traditional role of dwifungsi has been officially dismantled in the post-Soeharto era, the dispatch of the three warships was a knee-jerk response to President Susilo's statement about what his government believes to be its rights in the Sulawesi Sea.
Just as the East Timor incident created a negative impression worldwide of former president Megawati Soekarnoputri's administration, the recent show of force in Sulawesi may come at a high cost to President Susilo's political credibility, and may tarnish his country's reputation.
For one thing, the Indonesian move negates the credibility it accrued when it proposed the creation of an ASEAN Security Community by 2020 during its 2003-2004 chairmanship of the ASEAN Standing Committee.
Indonesia's actions go against the grain of the grouping's fundamental principles.
ASEAN states are to settle their disagreements without considering the use of force as an option. Preparations for the use of force are no longer acceptable and neither must they be factored into a country's contingency planning.
Also, the relative frailty of Indonesia's navy is an open secret among the region's defense community. Though it is the biggest naval force in Southeast Asia, its neglect over the 1990s has led to an unserviceable fleet.
Even Indonesia's navy chief of staff, Admiral Bernard Sondakh, had admitted as much. A 2002 The Jakarta Post editorial quoted him saying, "Only a handful of our warships are operational". Even then, since "none are equipped to engage in combat", they were only "good for fishing expeditions", he said.
Malaysia's decision to avoid a naval response until the Sebatik island standoff showed an accurate assessment of the scope of Indonesia's naval capacity.
Its sensible decision to withdraw its warship from the Sebatik island standoff also suggests that it has decided to avoid the outbreak of unnecessary conflict.
Malaysia would do well not to engage in any sabre-rattling, for its prudence can generate positive political capital for the country should it submit its case on the dispute to the International Court of Justice once again.
The news of its initial deployment of three warships, reported in the press a day after the opening of the three-day ASEAN Regional Forum on Regional Cooperation on Maritime Security held in Singapore, also places added strain on the already fragile but pressing agenda of regional maritime security cooperation.
Lastly, the Sulawesi incident raises questions about the state of affairs within President Susilo's government.
When six Indonesian warships appeared off East Timor's coast in 2002, security analysts interpreted it as a sign that the Indonesian military was reasserting its power under then- president Megawati's weak leadership.
Similarly, the warships in Sulawesi may indicate a similar bid for power by the military, against what it perceives as President Susilo's softness in negotiating with Malaysia on both the illegal workers' issue as well as the oil and gas blocks dispute.
It may also indicate a struggle for power within the military, among its various services. Significantly, just days before the Indonesia-Malaysia summit last month, the Indonesian navy announced a massive fleet expansion plan over the next decade.
Its plans to add at least 302 warships to its inventory may also indicate a desire to tip the regional naval balance of power in Indonesia's favor.
In what could be a bid for "overseas presence", the Indonesian navy made its maiden journey across the Pacific maritime theater in the middle of last year, sailing to Shanghai for training exercises with the People's Liberation Army navy.
However, if the dispatch of the warships shortly after President Susilo's meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was indeed done at the Indonesian leader's bidding, the international community may need to revise its perceptions of his diplomatic persona.
The writer is a research associate at the Institute of South- east Asian Studies. The views expressed here are his own. -----