Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum: Confronting Maritime Irregular Warfare’s Twin Threats in the South China Sea and Maritime Southeast Asia

This paper examines Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) initiative, and its present and future importance, primarily in combating the threat of maritime irregular warfare (MIW) in Southeast Asia. Specifically, it references the rise of grey-zone operations in the South China Sea, particularly by China.

Jia Yao Kuek originally presented and submitted this paper as part of the SAIS Asia Conference in April of 2019, while pursuing a Master of Arts in Harvard University’s Regional Studies-East Asia (RSEA) program. The author has since graduated.


Indonesia is a regional leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). As the largest economy and most populous country, it is an anchor to geopolitical stability in SEA. Straddling the strategic Straits of Malacca and disputed South China Sea (SCS), this geographical context presents Indonesia with the emerging threat of grey zone operations by claimants in the SCS. These claimants–particularly China–have used maritime militia, so called “little blue men,” in various recent stand-offs, most recently in China’s deployment of a large fleet of ships (including militia boats) in February to overshadow new Philippine construction on Thitu Island in the SCS.[1] The scope, frequency, and geographical reach of these operations may expand farther,[2] with the range of maritime irregular warfare (MIW) operations not yet fully realized and given the overlap between China’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Indonesia’s Natuna Islands’ EEZ. 

In addition, maritime security and sovereignty is a multifaceted, complex problem; it is exacerbated by more than just the rise of China’s grey-zone operations in the South China Sea. The high transnational terror risk in maritime SEA presents another aspect of MIW. This threat was evidenced by terrorists’ effective use of small-boat operations during the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[3] Within Southeast Asia, the incursion of 235 Filipino militants into Sabah, Malaysia during the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff reflects a similar threat. While acknowledging the importance of these threats in MIW, they are not the main focus of this paper.

For the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific to extend to SEA, the active participation of Indonesia–as the region’s most populous country and largest state by area–is crucial. This is driven by Indonesia’s highly-relevant geostrategic position, straddling the main East Asia-Europe maritime trade route along the Straits of Malacca; its proximity to the disputed South China Sea; and its vast maritime littoral.

This paper outlines the present Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), while proposing further policy prescriptions, areas for strengthened multilateral cooperation tying ASEAN initiatives to US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), and national maritime capacity-building initiatives, to ensure Indonesia’s timely and appropriate response to the threat of maritime irregular warfare.

Defining Maritime Irregular Warfare

In defining the concept of MIW, this paper relies on RAND Corporation’s “Characterizing and Exploring the Implications of Maritime Irregular Warfare” for its theoretical definition and key examples.[4] The concept of MIW is broad, overlapping with existing examples of irregular warfare, major combat operations (MCO), and stabilization, security, transition, and reconstruction (SSTR) joint operating concepts. MIW may comprise, in different situations, both irregular and conventional warfare activities, perpetrated by both irregular and conventional enemies. From RAND’s, and in extension, the United States’s perspective, MIW involves at least one irregular actor or tactic that aims to: (1) prevent supplies or personnel support from reaching an adversary, (2) increase the capacity of partner naval and maritime forces, or (3) to project tailored U.S. power ashore to directly confront adversary forces, when necessary.[5]

This paper approaches the threat of MIW from both an aggressor’s perspective (i.e. how third-party nations such as China have resorted to MIW), as well as from the angle of a potential US response. This potential US response relates specifically to the second, abovementioned, MIW tactic of increasing the capacity of partner naval forces (i.e. Indonesia) to combat the threats from China’s maritime militia in Indonesia’s maritime littoral.

Indonesia and the Jokowi administration’s Global Maritime Fulcrum policy

Indonesia’s territory encompasses a large maritime area and is replete with rich natural resources, especially fishing stocks. Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covers more than 6 million square kilometers,[6] while according to 2016 figures, the country’s wild capture fisheries production totals 5.9 million tons–the second largest in the world.[7] This vast maritime littoral and its accompanying resources have come into greater focus, in-line with the accession of Jokowi to the Indonesian presidency in 2014, and his adoption of the GMF initiative at a speech to the 9thEast Asia Summit in November 2014.[8]

In his speech, Jokowi outlined the broad goals of the GMF, in seeking to: 1) Rebuild Indonesia’s maritime culture; 2) maintain and manage its marine resources by developing a sustainable fishing industry; 3) prioritize maritime connectivity and infrastructural development (e.g. logistical networks, deep seaports, maritime tourism industry, sea highways, shipping industry); 4) intensify maritime diplomacy by working with partner countries on issues such as territorial disputes, illegal fishing, smuggling, piracy, violations of sovereignty, and marine pollution; 5) strengthen Indonesia’s maritime defense capability, both to maintain Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty, and ensure regional maritime peace and security.[9]

Given the aforementioned goals of maritime sovereignty and security, the GMF is relevant to the two issues of MIW that are discussed in this piece: China’s increased military assertiveness and maritime presence in SEA and the threat of sea-based terrorist attacks in the Indonesian littoral. Of the 76 programs proposed to advance the GMF vision (outlined in Jokowi’s Presidential Decree Number 16/2017 concerning Indonesian Ocean Policy (IOP), with the programs to be coordinated, but not directly controlled, by the then-recently created Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs), only a few are relevant to the scope of this paper, specific to the areas of security and foreign affairs. 

One key section of the IOP, as an example, was the Jokowi administration’s strong stance on illegal fishing, particularly by foreign boats. Jokowi’s previous appointment of Susi Pudjiastuti–a political outsider known for her successful business ventures in the seafood and aviation sectors­–as Fisheries Minister in October 2014, marked the beginning of the Indonesian government’s tougher stance on foreign boats’ illegal fishing operations within Indonesia’s EEZ. Former Minister Pudjiastuti received extensive media coverage for her efforts to stem illegal fishing, particularly for blowing up foreign boats that had been confiscated for fishing without permits.

Nevertheless, security and foreign affairs were arguably not a core focus of the IOP. The IOP’s 76 programs were broken into 425 activities, of which only 23 were assigned to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, with its focus on the default goals of “norms-building” or maritime and multilateral diplomacy in general. Furthermore, in the military arena, the action plan was limited to rehashing existing programs pertaining to naval base development, maintenance and repair facilities, command and control, and ship procurement.[10] As such, the IOP proved unclear in outlining Indonesia’s role in changing regional geopolitics and inconclusive in cementing the Jokowi administration’s goal of using the GMF to enhance regional peace and security.[11]

In the area of maritime security, the IOP is also complicated by existing bureaucratic and command structures in the Indonesian security establishment. Indonesia has 12 agencies responsible for law enforcement and maritime safety and security. Despite the establishment of a controlling agency–the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut or Bakamla)–in 2014, the actual enforcement capacity and control exercised by the Bakamla is minimal. To elaborate, the Bakamla lacks the authority to assume actual operational control over other maritime law enforcement agencies, particularly the Indonesian Navy and Indonesian Maritime Police.  Capacity-wise, the Bakamla only had six operational patrol boats as of October 2017.[12] The Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Laut, or TNI-AL) still carries out the bulk of Indonesia’s maritime law enforcement and maritime security operations. For example, the TNI-AL’s Western Fleet expanded its law enforcement role in early 2015 by establishing a Quick Reaction Team to better respond to illegal activities in their area of operations. Being better equipped than the Bakamla, the Western Fleet’s Quick Reaction Team has operated more effectively in its maritime enforcement roles, and crucially also largely independent of the Bakamla’s operational command – despite the latter organization’s supposed overarching authority.

In conclusion, from the Indonesian perspective, it is important to view the GMF as a framework and a vision, given a wide gap between the vision’s broad policy thrusts and the follow-up implementation of specific programs on the ground. This gap occurs because such follow-up implementation is entrusted to a diverse government establishment, composed of stakeholders with often conflicting interests and overlapping responsibilities. The GMF’s constituent programs, while taking heed of the GMF’s guidelines, do not necessarily work cohesively towards a shared vision of maritime sovereignty and security, as detailed by the GMF or the IOP. The proposed recommendations in the last section of this report aim to complement, and fill certain loopholes in, these constituent programs, while keeping to the broad tenets of the GMF and acknowledging certain structural divisions within the Indonesian government.

China’s Maritime Presence in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone

Driven by the large Chinese domestic market’s demand for fish, China’s fishermen (already the largest fishing fleet in the world) have sought to exploit fishing stocks farther from the Chinese coast, often illegally.[13] In various instances, these illegal fishing activities have led to confrontations with local coast guards, many in Indonesian waters.[14] Chinese maritime forces, particularly the Coast Guard and maritime militia, have reacted strongly to foreign attempts to confiscate and apprehend Chinese fishing vessels and crews, thereby precipitating violent clashes at sea.[15]

As such, a clear confluence of economic demand and geopolitical shifts may be observed in China’s defense of its fishermen at sea. This confluence is particularly relevant in Indonesia’s case, for while Indonesia is not a direct claimant to the disputed islands in the SCS, part of its 200-mile EEZ overlaps with China’s claimed nine-dash line. With the Chinese government having publicly recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, there is no clear threat of military confrontation over disputed land between the two countries. Nevertheless, these overlapping EEZs provide a potential source of tension and maritime clashes in the future and have already spawned several incidents in the past. Such an atmosphere sets the stage for China’s maritime militia to play a significant role in MIW operations.

In line with this discussion, it is important to introduce the role and structure of China’s maritime militias. Many Chinese fishermen are organized, and potentially mobilized, into maritime militias, serving as a lever for the Chinese state’s maritime power.[16] Aside from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the China Coast Guard, China’s maritime militia forces are based out of individual coastal towns and cities, each with their own unit. As of 2013, China’s fishery authorities recorded 21 million fishermen in the country, while the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recorded that China had nearly 439,000 motorized fishing vessels in 2012, which presents a vast pool of mobilizable manpower. While ostensibly created to implement administrative control over their local waters, these maritime militia have been used in previous conflicts and confrontations in the SCS. For example, the Danzhou Militia of Baimajing Harbor played a role in China’s operation to seize the Crescent Group of islands from Vietnam in the January 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands.[17] More recently, the Tanmen Village Maritime Militia Company of Qionghai County in Hainan province was directly involved in the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff between Philippine Navy forces that sought to confiscate a Chinese vessel’s harvest of endangered marine species, and Chinese fishing vessels backed by Chinese maritime surveillance ships that sought to block the Filipino Navy from arresting the Chinese fishermen.[18]  

Expansion of these maritime militias has been evident in recent years, whether in numerical terms, operational capability, or the level of investment that has been poured into these units. For example, of the maritime militia units along China’s southeast coast of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Hainan provinces, the proportion of maritime militia to the civilian fishing fleet in Beihai City increased tenfold from 2 percent in 2013 to 20 percent in 2015. This unit also participated in seven naval drills in 2015, as compared to only one in 2013.[19] Other prominent maritime militia units on China’s southern coast which have received increased investment in recent years include Danzhou, Tanmen Village of Qionghai County, Sansha, and Sanya.[20]

Professor Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College has conducted extensive research on the potential threat posed by China’s maritime militias. He has specifically focused on the role of China’s maritime militia as an official, organized arm of China’s Armed Forces. As the largest maritime militia force in the world, China’s maritime militia is a critical enabler of China’s “gray zone” operations, designed to increase control over the East and South China Seas through finely-calibrated escalation and coercion, short of war.[21] Erickson’s research is complemented in a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on the use of Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) to track what they identified to be large numbers of Chinese maritime militia vessels in the SCS, with the construction of such vessels heavily subsidized by the Chinese government.[22]

These studies understandably focus on security, particularly vis-à-vis US Navy operations in the region. Such research and narratives on China’s maritime militia often revolve around the military threat of a “third force” that is armed and dangerous, while portraying the Chinese government as duplicitous in marking militia vessels as civilian vessels despite their clear military utility. Even as the region is set to see an increase in gray zone operations by Chinese maritime forces, for now, China’s use of MIW is generally constrained to a specific geographic area within the nine-dashed line, with its MIW operations primarily targeting rival SCS claimants’ navies or territorial interests. Likewise, policy from external nations, namely the United States, has centered on conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) within China’s claimed territorial waters. 

While China undoubtedly possesses a wider range of applications for MIW in other areas–for example, the disputed EEZ between China and Indonesia–the following discussion seeks to contextualize the existing research specifically regarding the threat that China’s maritime militia in the SCS presents to Indonesia. In particular, Indonesia does not face a conventional military threat from China’s maritime forces, as Indonesia is not a direct claimant in the SCS conflict. 

As such, it will be argued that unlike prior analyses of China’s military threat vis-à-vis other claimant states and the US Navy’s presence in the SCS, the challenges posed to Indonesia by China’s maritime militia and MIW operations are not as straightforward as a fearmongering narrative of active military-fatigue-clad fishermen or “little blue men.” There are several reasons why such a narrative, specific to Indonesia’s disputes with China, is flawed.

First, the mission scope of any potential Chinese maritime forces outside, or on the periphery of, the nine-dashed line would be very different from what is assumed in most existing research. In such areas as the disputed EEZ with Indonesia or even within Indonesian territorial waters, China’s maritime forces focus more on intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities. These forces have long been used to that end, as the PLA Navy’s South China Sea Fleet Unit 488 is equipped with maritime intelligence trawlers (AGIs). These trawlers adopt superficial “fishing vessel” disguises and are packed with a sophisticated array of electronic intelligence-gathering equipment, as well as advanced satellite navigation and communication systems.[23] The utility of these AGIs or “sea phantoms” was highlighted by the Chinese Navy’s successful tailing of the Soviet aircraft carrier Minsk in 1979, using three of these trawler look-alike vessels.[24]  More recently, the ubiquity and continued use of these intelligence-gathering vessels was highlighted in 2016, when Indonesian maritime authorities confiscated a Chinese fishing vessel (and suspected AGI). While towing the Chinese vessel back to port, the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries vessel was confronted by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. The Coast Guard vessel then proceeded to ram the towed Chinese vessel, forcing the Indonesian authorities to release the boat while still retaining its crew in their custody. Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Mr. Armanatha Nasir subsequently publicly postulated that the Chinese Coast Guard rammed the fishing vessel because it did not want the vessel confiscated and potentially destroyed.[25] Short of armed confrontation over confiscation of sensitive assets, intelligence-gathering operations are generally passive. This incident informs any future discussions of Indonesia’s maritime security policies vis-à-vis China by shedding some light on the nature of China’s maritime militia operations in Indonesia’s EEZ. Given these operations are generally passive, the Indonesian Navy and maritime law enforcement agencies should be trained and prepared to respond accordingly, without an excessive use of force. Without appropriate training, an over-reaction could precipitate escalation to even more violent conflict.

Over and above the risk of armed confrontation, however, Indonesia should be more concerned about a gradually shifting status quo in the EEZ dispute with China. Any sustained and unchallenged presence of China’s maritime forces within Indonesia’s EEZ near the Natuna Islands would undermine Indonesian sovereignty in the area and ultimately work against Indonesia in the event of any bilateral negotiations to resolve the disputed boundary.

Returning to the danger of armed confrontation, it should be qualified that the risk of accidental confrontation is always present. However, it may be misleading to attribute this to any clear intentionality on the part of the Chinese government, as different actors within the Chinese system possess their own agency and often hold divergent interests.[26] As it is, the command structure and accompanying authority to mobilize China’s maritime militias is complex and divided. The maritime militia follows a dual military-civilian structure, with mobilization orders for these units coming from any of three entities: the military sub-district within which the militia unit is located, the local county/township People’s Armed Forces Department, or the National Defense Mobilization Committee.[27] A complex reporting system, not to mention the propensity for ground-level militia commanders to act on their own initiative, heightens the risk of unintentional confrontation and the risk of delay in responding to such flare-ups, hindering efforts to deescalate bilateral tensions. 

In noting that the Chinese government itself is not homogenous and that the command structure for these maritime militias is complex, we can further examine how these factors heighten the risk of accidental confrontation. This diverse range of actors and commanders is prone to mistakes, especially if Chinese central government diktat is misinterpreted. Ultimately, this can prompt accidental escalations. 

The Indonesian government can most adequately respond to, and prepare for, such confrontations by establishing and updating a clear set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) in managing unplanned encounters at sea. These SOPs must also include provisions on how to respond to maritime militia units and train Indonesian naval and maritime enforcement personnel to accurately identify different Chinese maritime forces’ vessels.

To sum up the discussion thus far on the Chinese maritime threat facing Indonesia, we can conclude that Indonesia does not face a sustained conventional military threat, per se, or at least at a level equivalent to that faced by China’s rival claimants in the SCS. Nevertheless, given Indonesia’s large maritime territory and the individual agency and initiative of different actors within the Chinese maritime security establishment, the threat of small-scale clashes at sea should not be underestimated. 

In discussing the threat of small-scale clashes near the Natuna Islands, we can observe a comparable, negative example in Sino-Korean clashes in the Yellow Sea. The continued, persistent, periodic outbreaks of violence between the South Korean Coast Guard and illegal Chinese fishing vessels, as precipitated by the latter’s repeated incursions, provides a prescient warning on the dangers of a prolonged period of confrontation between both countries. The South Korean Coast Guard’s inability to deescalate the situation has resulted in these confrontations often causing frequent casualties and even deaths on both sides.

To deal with the threat of both one-off skirmishes and prolonged periods of tension and confrontation with China, the Indonesian government should focus on instituting proper and de-escalatory but uncompromising SOPs vis-à-vis maritime incursions by Chinese vessels into Indonesia’s EEZ. These SOPS should ensure a degree of force that is commensurate with the threat faced. In addition, a basic ‘law of the sea’ course for TNI-AL and maritime law enforcement personnel would be useful in inculcating situational awareness for ground commanders, especially when responding to aggravated Chinese actions.

Having discussed the potential pitfalls of China’s increased maritime presence within Indonesia’s EEZ, my final qualification is to consider the broader picture of Chinese national interests. China’s national interests are diverse, multifaceted, and do not revolve exclusively around territorial or EEZ expansion goals. The overlapping EEZ dispute with Indonesia often brings out contradictory interests in the same area. For example, China’s desire to safeguard and zone off its claimed EEZ and the rich resources that lie within, are balanced by a more macro-assessment of its economic relationship with Indonesia in general. As Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia provides a huge market for Chinese products and also serves as an exporter of strategic commodities to China. As such, Indonesia serves as a crucial node on China’s vision for its Belt and Road Initiative.[28] Indonesia also remains an attractive investment destination for Chinese outbound FDI. But economic interdependence works both ways. China is one of Indonesia’s largest trading partners and is an important market for its commodities, including palm oil and coal. China also serves as Indonesia’s most important source of imports. A Chinese-Indonesian consortium is also currently building Indonesia’s first high-speed rail line, between Jakarta and Surabaya. Because of the multifaceted nature of Sino-Indonesian cooperation and conflict, a tipping point in bilateral relations based on China’s increased military assertiveness is by no means a foregone conclusion. Rather, the worry should be of a prolonged period of bilateral tension and increased incidents, similar to confrontations in the early 2010s between the South Korean coast guard and Chinese fishermen.

In addition, the Chinese government also has various other national priorities, foremost of which is domestic political legitimacy.[29] The South China Sea, and by extension Indonesia’s maritime littoral, is but another expanded arena for the Chinese government to derive a measure of national legitimacy. For example, following the 2016 incident where the Chinese coast guard vessel rammed the “fishing” vessel Kway Fey, forcing the Indonesian fisheries ministry vessel to release it from tow, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying was quick to issue a public statement calling the area where the episode took place “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” and ostensibly claiming that the Chinese Coast Guard vessel had not entered Indonesian territorial waters.[30] Such public rhetoric can be interpreted as being aimed primarily at a domestic audience, in defending Chinese fishermen’s and therefore citizens’ rights.

Ultimately, no assessment of the threat faced by Chinese MIW operations in Indonesia’s EEZ can be removed from a wider appreciation of China’s strategic vision and varied national constraints, as well as the larger Sino-Indonesian bilateral relationship. The high level of economic interdependence between China and Indonesia should raise the stakes of any potential conflict and hopefully prove the catalyst for a quick diplomatic resolution to any immediate accidental escalation or longer-term discussions over their disputed EEZs. The need to cooperate with China on a broad range of inter-state issues, and particularly the Chinese military, remains indisputable. In addition to the strong economic relationship between both countries that was outlined above, the strong bilateral relationship extends into the military arena. In recent years, the Indonesian armed forces (Tentera Nasional Indonesia or TNI) has sourced an increasing portion of its military equipment from China, particularly sensitive systems such as the Chinese Type 730 shipborne close-in weapon system, the C802 anti-ship missiles, portable surface-to-air missiles, and air search radars.[31]

To conclude the risks of China’s maritime presence in Indonesia’s EEZ, China’s actions should not be perceived as a direct military threat. Direct military conflict is a misleading narrative and is more relevant to China’s confrontation with rival claimant states in the SCS, rather than its disagreements with Indonesia. The most pressing concern for Indonesia is in a changing status quo on the ground, with the possibilithy of an entrenched, unchallenged Chinese maritime presence actively undermining Indonesian sovereignty. Indeed, the fundamental threat posed by the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia is its ability to help China expand and strengthen its control over strategically important maritime space, with little cost or risk.[32] To protect its territorial sovereignty, Indonesia must prevent China from altering the status quo in the disputed EEZ.

From the Indonesian perspective, the Jokowi administration has also accurately preempted the threat posed by an increasingly assertive Chinese presence in the area. Specifically, in the wake of a 2016 Sino-Indonesian clash over illegal Chinese fishing boats seized by the Indonesian government, the Indonesian government announced a planned deployment of four air force units operating Oerlikon Skyshield air defense systems to the Natuna Islands,[33] to expand its military presence and offer a clear statement on the Indonesian government’s commitment to maritime sovereignty. In the economic arena, Indonesia just announced plans in February 2019 to develop the fishing grounds surrounding the Natuna Islands, with cold-storage facilities, a fish-processing center, and refueling tankers providing a physical presence on the ground, along with satellites and drones to boost monitoring efforts.[34] As a symbolic gesture of sovereignty, the Indonesian government also renamed the EEZ north of the Natuna Islands as the North Natuna Sea.

In addition, any assessment of the security situation should take into account the diversity of actors within the Chinese maritime security establishment and chain-of-command. The way in which the maritime militia components report to a complex, multi-layered and dispersed command network ultimately heightens the risk of accidental confrontation. This danger should be addressed by issuing clear, updated SOPs for managing unplanned encounters at sea and reinforced by training Indonesian maritime personnel to identify different Chinese maritime forces.

Another recommendation for Indonesia is to establish collaborations or initiatives with other countries that also have a stake in the regional security order. Given that a Chinese maritime presence in Indonesia’s maritime littoral also targets other nations such as the United States and Japan, the Indonesian government would be prudent to leverage the national interests of these third-party nations in order to extract a degree of support and funding. 

Last, given that China’s maritime militia vessels often exist in a legal loophole where they are neither classified as a military vessel nor function as a civilian vessel, Indonesia may take the lead in pushing for such vessels to be included under an updated Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). As Colin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, states in an op-ed, “it is therefore no longer prudent to overlook these elusive forces; including them in a future enhanced Code on Unplanned Encounters at Sea now constitutes an urgent necessity.”[35]

Indonesia’s Domestic Political Context and Foreign Policy Outlook

The solutions proposed in the previous section would be incomplete without a qualification on the domestic political factors that may impede their implementation. Discussion of these factors first requires an overview of the historical legacy underpinning Indonesian politics, as well as the persistent influence of this legacy on the Indonesian political system today.

Indonesia’s post-independence foreign policy has historically emphasized a political realist approach. It has been averse to external superpower involvement in the region, as a legacy of the Japanese conquest of the archipelago during World War II, the Indonesian struggle for independence against the Dutch, and the global Cold War rivalry. Wary of any foreign (particularly great power) involvement in the region, Indonesia has emphasized protection of its sovereignty through a process of building up national resilience (ketahanan nasional) and has relied upon ASEAN as a corner-stone of its foreign policy. Such sentiments persist in Indonesia’s present-day domestic political context, and would hang over any proposed, expanded cooperation between the United States and Indonesia. 

A second qualification regarding Indonesia’s domestic political impediments to strategy implementation is the persistently strong role of the military. The realist worldview of the Indonesian foreign policy and security elite translates into a fiercely nationalist foreign policy that manifests in strong public support for a strong and well-equipped armed forces to defend national sovereignty. [36] As such and despite the end of dwifungsi[37] in Indonesia’s post-Suharto era, the military retains an influential role in the political landscape, as well as in various non-military tasks. For example, Jokowi’s predecessor as President, his current Chief of Presidential Staff, and his Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs were all former generals in the TNI–Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Moeldoko, and Luhut Pandjaitan, respectively.[38] As such, the suggestion to integrate domestic maritime law enforcement capability under the Bakamla would predictably face backlash from the strong security establishment.

However, such a prioritization of military needs has not translated into prudent defense spending habits, or specifically, an effective maritime security enforcement capability. Indonesia’s long-term military procurement strategies are often hampered by a persistent risk of corruption, with Transparency International’s Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index giving Indonesia a ‘D’ rating in 2015.[39] There is a perceived lack of systems of monitoring, control, and accountability. The lack of such systems would impede any efforts to expand and strengthen the Indonesian government’s maritime law enforcement capacity, particularly if such efforts were carried out under the mandate of the TNI.

Nevertheless, there are several ways forward. During Jokowi’s 2015 visit to the United States, President Jokowi and President Obama elevated bilateral ties to the level of a strategic partnership, with the release of a more specific joint statement on comprehensive defense cooperation and a memorandum of understanding on maritime cooperation.[40] To build on this momentum, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made a crucial visit to Jakarta just last year, against the backdrop of increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea. His public remarks focused on maritime cooperation and support, while outlining how US assistance has strengthened the Bakamla through providing training and hardware (such as a 50-ton Coast Guard cutter).[41] As such, ideas presented in this paper may fit into the existing 2015 strategic bilateral framework and expand upon the concrete but tentative steps taken since Secretary Mattis’ visit to Jakarta.

Recent developments in Indonesia support the possibility of strategy implementation, with Jokowi having just won reelection with a renewed, stronger mandate. Additionally, given that this is Jokowi’s second and last term in office, he has greater political capital and a greater operating room for further reform, reinforcing the potential for this paper’s suggestions to be pushed through and implemented.

Indonesia’s historical and current-day foreign-policy doctrines are multifaceted and interpretable in ways that can elicit support for this paper’s proposed suggestions. Specifically, Indonesia’s archipelagic principle (wawasan nusantara), first proclaimed in 1957, is such an example. The term was coined amidst fears about foreign intervention in various secessionist movements in Indonesia at the time. Wawasan nusantara outlined how “all waters, surrounding, between and connecting the islands constituting the Indonesian state, regardless of their extension or breadth, are [an] integral part of the territory of the Indonesian state and, therefore, parts of the internal or national waters which are under the exclusive sovereignty of the Indonesian state.”[42] On this basis, the Indonesian government extended the country’s territorial waters from three to twelve miles. In sum, this concept integrated a domestic fear of externally incited secessionism into a national geostrategic and military doctrine. In emphasizing an outcome-based implementation of this doctrine, protecting the sovereignty of Indonesia’s expanded territorial waters necessitates strong maritime law enforcement capabilities, crucially, even if this requires the support of external partners. 

Lastly, Indonesia’s traditional foreign policy stance has emphasized a free and active approach (bebas-aktif) that manifests in support for, and participation in, regional organizations such as ASEAN. Indonesia often positions itself as a regional leader in ASEAN, placing the regional organization as a cornerstone in its efforts in the international arena. This fact supports this paper’s proposal that Indonesia push for an updated CUES in the South China Sea, with the involvement of other ASEAN partners.

As documented above, Indonesia’s domestic politics retain strong influence over the country’s foreign policy priorities. These factors have the potential to hamper implementation of my proposed recommendations, particularly vis-à-vis closer domestic suspicion of defense cooperation efforts with third-party, non-ASEAN states such as the United States or Japan. Nevertheless, the changing nature of Indonesian democracy–with Jokowi’s recent election victory–as well as the tradition of an archipelagic principal in Indonesia’s national and territorial identity, helps legitimize efforts to further expand Indonesia’s maritime security enforcement efforts. In addition, Indonesia’s traditional emphasis on ASEAN helps provide a regional foundation for any current/future efforts to implement a new CUES that includes China’s maritime militia.

Indonesia’s Maritime Law Enforcement Capacity as a Multifaceted Issue

Despite this paper’s limited scope in focusing on China’s maritime militia, it is worth noting that the benefits of strengthened maritime security enforcement capacity and streamlined command and control for Indonesia’s various maritime law enforcement agencies is not exclusively pertinent to externally-focused, foreign state-instigated threats. Such capabilities can also be used to reduce other domestic/ transnational non-state actor threats such as piracy, smuggling, and crucially, terrorism.

Domestic terrorist threats and the external threat posed by China’s use of maritime irregular warfare are not mutually exclusive priorities. Rather, capacity-building efforts for Indonesian maritime law enforcement agencies can be used both to respond firmly against maritime militia units near the Natuna Islands, as well as to patrol Indonesia’s maritime littoral against domestic/internal maritime threats.

A range of different issues, from the threat of terrorism via small-boat attacks in the Indonesian littoral, the history of piracy in the Malacca Strait, to the persistent trend of smuggling within Indonesia and neighboring states, provide a similar model for effective use of small-boat operations in relation to the Indonesian maritime littoral’s unique geography.[43] The Malacca Strait is a major global maritime transport route and its geography–being narrow and containing thousands of islets, as well as serving as an outlet for many rivers–makes it easy for pirates and terrorists to launch attacks from small boats and then disappear quickly into the surrounding environment. Indeed, the activities, methods, and goals of piracy and terrorism often closely overlap, in that terrorists often engage in piracy. These internal issues would benefit from a capacity strengthening initiative directed towards the Bakamla. Thus the threat of terrorism, scale of transnational smuggling, and persistent problem of piracy in the Indonesian maritime littoral further highlights the threat posed by MIW in the region by demonstrating the porosity of maritime borders between the states in maritime SEA. 

Ultimately, maritime security and sovereignty is a multifaceted, complex problem with both external and internally-focused threats that would all benefit from capacity-strengthening efforts from Indonesian maritime law enforcement. In addition, issues such as maritime irregular warfare and/or terrorism are transnational challenges that mandate the involvement of regional organizations. To this end, Indonesia may cooperate with other members of ASEAN to push through the aforementioned proposal for a CUES that applies to China’s maritime militia. For example, Singapore has a strong national interest in maintaining the safe and free navigation of waterways through maritime Southeast Asia, as a small country that is highly-dependent upon external maritime trade for its economic survival. 


The increasing prevalence and use of maritime irregular warfare means that Indonesia’s GMF strategy, if comprehensively implemented, would be a timely and useful intervention in ensuring Indonesia’s continued security and sovereignty. Successful implementation would additionally cement Indonesia’s role as a geostrategic anchor for stability in Southeast Asia. 

In the wider geographical picture, the Jokowi administration, through its Indonesian Ocean Policy, accurately identifies the geostrategic importance of the Indonesian archipelago, which spans major global maritime and shipping routes such as the Strait of Malacca and the Singapore Strait. Indonesia’s geostrategic importance, vast maritime littoral, and busy, narrow sea lanes are highly relevant when considering the threat posed by potential spillover from China’s MIW operations in the South China Sea and the threats posed by terrorism, smuggling, and piracy. In emphasizing this point of geostrategic importance in diplomatic engagements with other countries, the Indonesian government can lobby for greater support from partner nations, including the United States. These lobbying efforts could also potentially include Japan, given its long record of donating patrol boats and other maritime law enforcement vessels to countries in the region. This policy has included the donation of ten new high-speed patrol vessels to the Philippines between 2016 and 2018 and a 2014 agreement between Japan and Vietnam, providing six (later increased to eight) second-hand patrol vessels for the latter.[44]

In order to integrate the recommendations of this paper into the larger programs and pillars of the GMF, the discussion has focused on the policy pillars of maritime defense, security, law enforcement, and safety; maritime diplomacy; marine and human resource development; and ocean governance institutionalization.

The nature of Indonesia’s geostrategic position, with its large archipelago, extensive maritime littoral, and position along the Straits of Malacca, makes a discussion of its national maritime security and diplomacy initiatives highly-relevant to regional challenges of maritime irregular warfare. These various initiatives were an attempt to form a coherent maritime policy under the Jokowi administration, signaled by the president’s launch of the Indonesian Ocean Policy to achieve his Global Maritime Fulcrum vision.

Beyond the existing ideas proposed as part of the IOP’s different policy pillars and with a view towards confronting the different threats of China’s maritime militia and other instances of MIW, this paper recommends that Indonesia leverage the interests of other stakeholders in the region, specifically Japan and the United States, to attract support for maritime law enforcement capacity-building. This support may even take the form of a new, bilateral BPC program with the United States, to manage the twin threats of MIW and provide much-needed US capacity-building expertise and funding for the still-nascent Bakamla. Such an enhanced bilateral partnership would extend beyond the United States’ current multilateral Maritime Security Initiative. Further along the line, these new assets could be more effectively utilized to safeguard Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty and security by placing them under the control of a streamlined, integrated domestic maritime law enforcement establishment under the command and control of the Bakamla. 

Lastly, in terms of a legal framework, Indonesia should take the lead in proposing an updated CUES that includes China’s maritime militia. Furthermore, at the ground command levels, the Indonesian government should institute a training program to instill basic knowledge of CUES and other tenets of maritime law for all of Indonesia’s frontline naval and maritime enforcement personnel. This program would facilitate an effective, measured, and commensurate response by Indonesian maritime personnel to any future escalation by China’s maritime armed forces. Such knowledge also serves as a crucial element of the IOP’s pillar on human resource development.


Recent political coverage of Indonesia has focused on President Widodo’s re-election victory, and his subsequent cabinet reshuffle. Nevertheless, with uneven progress in implementing the GMF vision in his first term,[45] as well as a conspicuous absence of the GMF in President Widodo’s first presidential speech after his re-election,[46] the recommendations put forth in this paper still remain relevant. 


[1] “Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes a Paramilitary Response.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, February 6, 2019. Accessed March 22, 2019.

[2] Abhijit Singh. “Deciphering Grey-zone Operations in Maritime-Asia.” Observer Research Foundation, August 3, 2018. Accessed March 24, 2019.

[3] Molly Dunigan, Dick Hoffmann, Peter Chalk, Brian Nichiporuk, and Paul Deluca. Characterizing and exploring the implications of maritime irregular warfare. RAND National Defense Research Institute (Santa Monica: 2012), 76-80.

[4] Dunigan et al. Characterizing and exploring the implications of maritime irregular warfare, 5-16.

[5] Dunigan et al. Characterizing and exploring the implications of maritime irregular warfare, xiii.

[6] “Investing in Indonesia: Indonesia Business Update on Fisheries,” BKPM, 2017.

[7] FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. FishStat J-Software for Fisheries Statistical Time Series, updated July 21, 2016.

[8] Joko Widodo. Speech to 9th East Asia Summit, Naypyidaw, 13 November 2014. (Accessed 11 December 2014).

[9] Widodo. Speech to 9th East Asia Summit, Naypyidaw.

[10] Evan Laksmana. “INDONESIAN SEA POLICY: ACCELERATING JOKOWI’S GLOBAL MARITIME FULCRUM?” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, March 23, 2017. Accessed March 3, 2019.

[11] Shafiah F. Muhibat. “Indonesia’s New Ocean Policy: Analysing the External Dimension.” Maritime Affairs: Journal of the National Maritime Foundation of India 13.2 (2017): 50-61.

[12] Muhamad Arif and Yandry Kurniawan. “Strategic Culture and Indonesian Maritime Security.” Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies 5.1 (2018): 77-89

[13] Andrew Jacobs. “China’s appetite pushes fisheries to the brink.” New York Times (2017).

[14] Bonnie S. Glaser. Armed Clash in the South China Sea. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2012.

[15] Alessio Patalano. “Sea power, maritime disputes, and the evolving security of the East and South China Seas.” The RUSI Journal 158, no. 6 (2013): 48-57.

[16] Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy. “China’s maritime militia.” CNA Corporation 7 (2016).

[17] Andrew S. Erickson and Conor M. Kennedy. “Irregular forces at sea: Not ‘merely fishermen’—Shedding light on china’s maritime militia.” Center for International Maritime Security 2 (2015).

[18] Erickson and Kennedy. Irregular Forces at Sea: Not ‘merely fishermen’—Shedding light on china’s maritime militia.

[19] Jianing Yao. “Maritime Militia Increases Drills, Expands in Scope.” China Daily, February 2, 2016. Accessed March 3, 2019.

[20] Andrew S. Erickson. “The South China Sea’s Third Force: Understanding and Countering China’s Maritime Militia.” Testimony Before the House Armed Service Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee 21 (2016).

[21] Ibid.

[22] “The Launch of the Stephenson Ocean Security Project.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. January 10, 2019. Accessed March 2, 2019.

[23] James Kraska and Michael Monti. “The law of naval warfare and China’s maritime militia.” International Law Studies 91, no. 1 (2015): 13.

[24] Colin Koh Swee Lean. “China’s ‘Sea Phantom’ Fleet Prowls the Open Waters.” The National Interest, February 4, 2016. Accessed March 2, 2019.

[25] Joe Cochrane. “China’s Coast Guard Rams Fishing Boat to Free It From Indonesian Authorities.” The New York Times, March 21, 2016. Accessed March 2, 2019.

[26] Kenneth Lieberthal and David M. Lampton, eds. “Bureaucracy, politics, and decision making in post-Mao China.” (1992): 357-401.

[27] Erickson and Kennedy. China’s Maritime Militia, 10.

[28] Lim, Alvin Cheng Hin. “China’s “Belt and Road” and Southeast Asia: Challenges and Prospects.” JATI-Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20 (2015): 3-15.

[29]Suisheng Zhao. “China’s pragmatic nationalism: is it manageable?.” The Washington Quarterly 29, no. 1 (2005): 131-144.

[30] Joe Cochrane. “China’s Coast Guard Rams Fishing Boat to Free It From Indonesian Authorities.” The New York Times, March 21, 2016. Accessed March 2, 2019.

[31] Kristin Huang. “The Weapons Sales Making China a Big Gun in Southeast Asia.” South China Morning Post, July 20, 2018. Accessed March 3, 2019.

[32] Andrew S. Erickson. “Shining a Spotlight: Revealing China’s Maritime Militia to Deter Its Use.” The National Interest, November 25, 2018. Accessed March 2, 2019.’s-maritime-militia-deter-its-use-36842.

[33] “Indonesia Deploys Anti-Air System in S. China Sea.” The Maritime Executive, April 6, 2016. Accessed March 3, 2019.

[34] “Indonesia to Open Fishing Zone near Disputed S. China Sea.” ABS CBN, February 21, 2019.

[35] Colin Koh Swee Lean. “China’s ‘Sea Phantom’ Fleet Prowls the Open Waters.” The National Interest, February 4, 2016. Accessed March 2, 2019.

[36] Jürgen Rüland. The Indonesian Way : ASEAN, Europeanization, and Foreign Policy Debates in a New Democracy. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2017.

[37] Dwifungsi refers to the Indonesian military’s dual function under the Suharto presidency, which legitimized its involvement in domestic politics and business.

[38] UPDATE ON THE INDONESIAN MILITARY’S INFLUENCE. Report no. 26. Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. March 11, 2016. Accessed May 8, 2019.

[39] Transparency International, “Government Defence Anticorruption Index 2015, Indonesia,” n.d., 

[40] Prashanth Parameswaran. “The New U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership after Jokowi’s Visit: Problems and Prospects.” Brookings Institution. 2015. Accessed May 8, 2019.

[41] Patrick M. Cronin and Marvin C. Ott. “Deepening the US-Indonesian Strategic Partnership Defense Secretary James Mattis Meets with Indonesia’s Chief of Defense Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto during a Visit to Jakarta, Indonesia (Jan. 24, 2018). Image Credit: DoD Photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith Deepening the US-Indonesian Strategic Partnership.” The Diplomat, February 17, 2018. Accessed May 10, 2019.

[42] Michael Leifer. 1983. Indonesia’s Foreign Policy. London, Boston, and Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

[43] Anthony Reid. “2 Challenging geography: asserting economic sovereignty in a porous archipelago.” Indonesia in the New World: Globalisation, Nationalism and Sovereignty (2018): 17.

[44] Miha Hribernik. “The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) as a foreign policy instrument in Southeast Asia.” (2015).

[45] The GMF has not brought about much change in the Navy’s role within the larger Indonesian military, while the problem with overlapping inter-institutional authority over maritime security has continued to persist. 

[46] Muhammad Habib Abiyan Dzakwan. “Is This the Twilight of Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum?” The Diplomat, November 4, 2019.

Jia Yao Kuek
Jia Yao Kuek

Jia Yao Kuek originally presented and submitted this paper as part of the SAIS Asia Conference in April of 2019, while pursuing a Master of Arts in Harvard University’s Regional Studies-East Asia (RSEA) program. The author has since graduated.