Mon, 22 Dec 2003

Thorough maritime foreign policy needed

Siswo Pramono, Deputy Director for Global Politics, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jakarta

Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American historian and naval strategist, inferred in 1890, that whoever controlled the sea would likewise control global politics. If his theory applies to Indonesia, the world largest archipelago, then we need a comprehensive maritime policy.

And if geopolitics is meant to be a tool of analysis for the making of such policies, then, for Indonesia, location, size, demography, and natural resources matter. As such, the strategic questions are these.

What is the strategic significance of the Indonesian archipelago, which is located in Asian continent, with the dawning powers of China and India, and Australian -- with an increasingly assertive government portraying itself as an important link with the "old" Anglo-American alliance -- for the national and regional security?

As Australia is now openly willing to support the U.S. ballistic missile defense program, and despite the existing Southeast Asian nuclear weapon free-zone treaty (although none of the nuclear weapon states has signed its protocol), do we have the capacity to control the transit passages of warships through our waters, with some of them, perhaps, having nuclear weapons on board? Are we prepared for the consequence of incidents, or accidents, in our region, involving foreign warships with nuclear weapons?

In other words, what is the strategic significance of being located at the point connecting the Indian Ocean (with extensions to conflict prone water ways such as the Strait of Hormus, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal) and the Pacific Ocean (with the troubled waters of the South China Sea)?

What is the significance of being a nation of 210 million people residing in such a strategic location? Are we creative, educated, and determined enough to explore and exploit this advantage? Or, are we so indifferent or uneducated that all of the aforementioned factors turn into our strategic disadvantages?

Do (or when will) we have the capacity to defend our some 17,000 islands, or patrol a surface of 5, 193,025 square kilometers?

The facts are ironic. For instance, out of 6.3 million metric tons of fish -- our annual maximum sustainable yield -- and a total annual allowable catch of some 5 million tons, we only manage to catch about 1 million tons of fish. Some 1.5 million tons of fish are pilfered by our "friends" in the region.

Amid our struggle for economic recovery, we loose two to four billion dollars a year as a consequence of poaching.

We should not ignore the fact that countries in our region have developed their respective maritime capacities. In Southeast Asia, Thailand and the Philippines are now asserting their status as distant water fishing nations.

In the South and South West Pacific, the fishing industry has become a main component of the economy of Australia, New Zealand, and the small island states.

In East Asia, China is increasingly able to project its power over the South China Sea. And, in South Asia, India increasingly enhances its naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

While, in Southeast Asia, interstate wars have been absent for almost three decades, and thus military invasion in the near future is unlikely, historically any invasion of Indonesia has involved naval operations.

With the same token, and also from a military perspective, Indonesia cannot win its war against the secessionists unless it has the capacity to deploy an effective naval blockade in the affected regions (or islands).

In either case, while refraining from involvement in the possible regional arms race, an effective navy has an important role in the defense of our archipelago.

Do our maritime policies lack vision? In fact, through the Djuanda Declaration of 1956, Indonesia "invented" the concept of archipelagic outlook. This concept followed decades of diplomatic struggle and was eventually elevated as an important principle of the international law of the sea.

But, it is another irony, that our amended Constitution, while asserting in Article 25 that our unitary state is archipelagic in nature, refrains from further elaboration on our maritime geopolitics. Law No 37/1999 on Foreign Relations, too, is silent on our maritime foreign policy.

Our future is at sea. We will increasingly deal with various international aspects of maritime affairs:

o Since the open sea has no boundaries, our foreign policy will increasingly deal with transnational issues on the use of oceans, including the protection of the marine environment.

o Since most of our borders are sea borders, and we share sea borders with, at least, ten neighbors -- India, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and East Timor -- our foreign policy will be beset with the task of preventing or resolving possible border disputes. Worse, we do not have a law on state borders, nor even a comprehensive maritime map.

o Since most illegal fishing is committed by fishermen from neighboring countries, in particular Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China, our foreign policy should be aimed at finding a regional solution.

o Since our archipelago is vulnerable to military invasion, infiltration, secessionist movements, and transnational crimes (i.e., terrorism, people smuggling, drug trafficking, piracy, illegal trafficking of weapons, etc), our foreign policy should help promote maritime cooperation that sustains regional security and resilience.

o Since our naval capability is poor, our foreign policy is beset with the task of finding foreign partners to help strengthen our navy and coast guards.

o Most importantly, since our archipelago, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf are rich in natural resources, our foreign policy should be bent toward transferring the foreign technology, know-how, and capital, that are badly needed to develop the economic potential of our maritime zone.

It is time to build a more comprehensive foundation of maritime geopolitics into our Constitution. Maritime geopolitics, in the existing law dealing with foreign relations, should also be elaborated further.

Our maritime policy should be implemented through the concerted efforts of maritime diplomacy under the coordination of the Department of Foreign Affairs. And, as a matter of technicality, it is thus important for the Department of Foreign Affairs to establish a special operational unit with the sole task of coordinating the various aspects of maritime foreign affairs.

The opinions stated above are solely those of the author.