Lessons Indonesia can learn from China in building maritime power

Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants the country to be a global maritime power. Presidential Palace/EPA

This article is part of a series published to commemorate World Maritime Day, 26 September.


When Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo first came to office in 2014, he sought to capitalise on the country’s geographical position. He pledged to make Indonesia a global maritime power.

Under the Global Maritime Fulcrum doctrine, Jokowi envisioned that, not only would Indonesia become a hub for maritime trade, it would also embrace a more active security role in the region.

I study Indonesian defence and security policy and have carried out an extensive review of Indonesia’s foreign policy and maritime strategy. My review shows several limitations on the ground that may hinder the realisation of Jokowi’s grand vision.

The Indonesian Navy lacks resources and there is poor coordination among government agencies on maritime issues. Indonesia’s naval policy is also still unclear and yet to reflect the bold ambition for Indonesia to become a regional player.

There are several things Indonesia can learn from China as a contemporary rising maritime power.


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Lack of focus

Despite its location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime policy hasn’t been a large part of Indonesia’s geopolitical outlook.

In 1957, Indonesia proposed the Archipelagic Outlook, which declared that both land and water were integral parts of Indonesian territory.

The Archipelagic Outlook would later inspire the inclusion of the archipelagic state rights in Part IV of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which also provided a legal basis for the expansion of Indonesia’s maritime territory.

Though the Archipelagic Outlook and UNCLOS exponentially increased the extent of Indonesia’s maritime territory – by 12 nautical miles for territorial waters and by 200 nautical miles for the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – the country did not necessarily adopt a more outward-looking strategy.

A key aspect of Jokowi’s Global Maritime Fulcrum doctrine is its promise to develop a navy capable of not just providing domestic security, but also regional security.

The strategy can be summarised in three points: bolstering naval capabilities through modernisation, increasing synergy across agencies, and forging cooperative ties with regional navies.

For the most part, Jokowi’s programs have focused on accelerating the first point. In naval acquisition, for example, Indonesia acquired three new Nagapasa-class submarines to replace its ageing submarines.

Indonesia also acquired and commissioned two Martadinata-class light frigates.

But work still needs to be done on the other points. All maritime-security related government agencies require a clearer and more comprehensive maritime outlook, or a common understanding of the long-term goals of the Global Maritime Fulcrum doctrine. This is so they may better identify areas for improvement and cooperation.

The lack of focus is partly the result of the Indonesian military effort to secure the outer islands, such as Maluku and Papua, through a land-based defence structure known as “Regional Military Commands”. This operation takes away resources from the navy.


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Lack of manpower

The Indonesian Navy is the second-largest branch of the Indonesian Armed Forces, boasting 65,000 active personnel and around 130 primary vessels.

It monitors roughly 140,000 square kms of water and 54,700 kms of coastline – safeguarding them from piracy, maritime terrorism and illegal fishing.

In comparison, the French Navy – one of the worl’d oldest naval forces – has around 44,000 personnel, 200 primary vessels and 200 naval aircraft. The French Navy is responsible for the largest EEZ in the world – more than 4.5 million square kms in total.

Closer to home, China’s navy boasts around 250,000 personnel and 80 primary vessels. China has around 270,000 square kms of water territory to guard, in addition to its claims in the South China Sea.

Numbers only make up part of the equation when discussing naval power. France’s actual strength comes from cooperation agreements with countries such as Cyprus and India, as well as with the European Union.

The Chinese navy is still considered rather “small” compared to its wider regional ambitions but is nonetheless sufficient in fulfilling domestic security responsibilities.

The Indonesian Navy, in contrast, is a small navy with big responsibilities.

Lack of funding

Since the 1980s, Indonesian defence spending started declining steadily. Budget cuts hampered the navy’s capability to modernise its fleet, as shown in its inability to maintain its prised submarines afloat.

Historically, the army has been allotted the lion’s share of the defence budget – sometimes up to double that of the navy.

Indonesia’s defence spending has hovered at around 1% of GDP. Although the defence budget reached a record high of US$8 billion in 2017, with new vessels being commissioned, fleet modernisation and rejuvenation aren’t happening as quickly as planned.

In comparison, France is aiming to spend US$42.2 billion (nearly 2% of its GDP) in 2019 on defence. The United States – the world’ most powerful military – spends around US$700 billion globally.

These developed navies generally spend money on sustaining routine operations, maintenance of platforms and fleet modernisation.

China reportedly maintains defence spending at around US$200 billion (around 1.25% of GDP), which is generally spent on acquiring new vessels and developing the fleet.


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Lack of coordination

Indonesia has 13 security agencies overseeing maritime affairs, all of which have overlapping authority and duties. They also compete for resources and recognition.

In 2014, Jokowi passed a regulation forming the Maritime Security Agency. This is a non-ministerial body that reports directly to the president. It is headed by a three-star military officer and its members are a mixture of civilian and military personnel.

Their primary role is to act as coordinators of existing maritime authorities, thus ending needless turf wars.

The agency serves as a principal point of contact for cooperation with other coast guards and assists the Indonesian Navy as a coast guard of sorts. Recent arrests of illegal fuel smugglers and increased cooperation with neighbouring coast guards show the agency living up to this promise.

However, its role as a maritime security coordinator is still underdeveloped. On the ground, the agency continues to struggle against a navy-dominated maritime security structure.

The Maritime Security Agency also has limited assets, which makes it dependent on the navy, despite slow efforts to modernise.

Forging ahead

Although Indonesia and China differ in many aspects, in viewing the way Chinese leaders Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping built China’s naval power, Indonesia can learn three lessons from the country.

First is the need to have sustained political will to carry out naval reforms, as shown in Xi Jinping’s reforms of the Chinese navy. Second is to have a clear and strategic objective to guide naval procurement and creation of naval doctrine.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, is the need for a large amount of resources, in the form of funds and people.

Building and modernising a navy cannot be done during a single stint in office.

The Global Maritime Fulcrum vision provides a way for Indonesia to assert itself as a maritime nation.

However, it must be sustained by political leadership committed to investing large amounts of material resources and brainpower to generate clear strategic thinking.