Shipping containers. Photo by H├еkan Dahlström on flickr.

Shipping containers. Photo by H├еkan Dahlström on flickr.

The significance of Joko Widodo’s ‘global maritime fulcrum’ and Indonesia’s military modernisation.

Defying expectations that he would be a leader engrossed in domestic affairs, Indonesia’s new President Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) has already left his mark on the regional and world stage within seven months of his inauguration.

Alongside his new concept of Indonesia as a ‘global maritime fulcrum’, his government has pledged to raise defence spending and sought assistance for military modernisation from a range of international partners. It has boosted economic and defence cooperation with the United States, China, Japan and India.

Internationally, Jokowi and his defence minister have announced their determination to support the fight against Islamic extremists. Within the region, he has signalled a tougher stance on maritime security – including the orchestrated sinking of three empty Vietnamese fishing boats to deter illegal fishing in Indonesian waters – and has launched a national coast guard.

President Jokowi certainly appears to be adopting an internationalist approach both to developing Indonesia’s partnerships and to his new maritime strategic doctrine. This reflects a trend of Indonesia’s globalising foreign policy, which gathered pace under his predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY).

SBY’s global foreign policy activism derived from his personal style and domestic political stability, especially in his second term. Jokowi is a very different personality and faces more uncertain domestic political constraints in the form of factional politics and serious economic challenges. However, Jokowi’s key foreign policy advisers are internationalists aspiring to a greater global reach for Indonesia.

The clearest indicator of this to date is Jokowi’s strategic vision of Indonesia as a poros maritim dunia – global maritime fulcrum. Rizal Sukma, Jokowi’s key foreign policy advisor, describes the ideal as transforming Indonesia into ‘the fulcrum of the two… strategic oceans’ – the Pacific and Indian oceans – as ‘the place upon which the burdens of the two seas rest’.

Rhetorical flourishes aside, this innovative strategic concept is a rallying cry to consolidate various vital national security priorities, pursue much-needed defence reforms and procurements, and assert Indonesia’s widening strategic domain.

The ‘global maritime fulcrum’ idea helps Jokowi advance some vital domestic goals through building connectivity among the strategic islands of this far-flung archipelago, chiefly by upgrading port infrastructure. Connecting these islands will increase their integration into the national economy, and help address local insurgency issues, particularly in remote areas like the Maluku islands.

Overall, improving maritime infrastructure within the archipelago will enhance Indonesia’s ability to harness international trade, reduce currently prohibitive costs of domestic commerce, tackle piracy and increase control over maritime resources like fisheries.

Through this fulcrum, Jokowi has also advanced a strategic vision to galvanise domestic and international support for much-needed defence development. The aim here is less to transform Indonesia into a maritime great power than to ensure that the navy and air force is modernised sufficiently to have some minimal capacity to cope with maritime threats internally and externally, and to protect national maritime assets, territories and SLOCs (sea lines of communication). The latter aim has grown urgent especially in the face of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea territorial disputes since 2010.

The ‘global maritime fulcrum’ concept consolidates the rising attention that has been paid to the Indian Ocean in recent Indonesian strategic thought. In 2012-3, SBY and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa emphasised the importance of building stability in the Indian Ocean region, with the latter identifying the region bounded by Japan, Australia and India as vital to Indonesia.

Their conception echoed the security focus of the ‘Indo-Pacific strategic arc’ mentioned in the 2013 Australian Defence White Paper, which equally stressed Indonesia’s vital position between the two oceans. In further developing its own strategic policy on the ‘Indo-Pacific arc’, Australia should closely monitor Indonesian political developments and strategic thinking for indication of whether these might aid or hinder Australian plans.

This is particularly important because Jokowi’s maritime fulcrum vision is actually broader, suggesting developmental and civilisational overtones beyond the emphasis on regional powers. In this sense, Jokowi’s concept resonates more closely with the Chinese idea of a ‘21st century maritime silk road’, which has gained traction over the last five years.

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University.

This article is based on the latest paper in the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre’s Centre of Gravity series, ‘A strategy towards Indonesia’.