Maritime Fairtrade interviews Major General Bambang Trisnohadi, director general of Defense Strategy, Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense, regarding China and the South China Sea dispute.
So far, it appears that China continues militarization efforts in the South China Sea, including on islands they built. How is Indonesia’s current stance on the conflict as well as on China’s nine-dash line claim?
In regards to Indonesia’s position in the conflict, the government has stated that Indonesia is not a claimant state and is not part of the countries in dispute. However, there are parts of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that intersect with China’s nine-dash line claim. So, in the case of Chinese coast guard ships entering (our territorial waters), it’s in the intersection area.
Nevertheless, despite past frictions, we remain committed to diplomacy, through dialogues. ASEAN countries have agreed to always resolve conflicts related to the South China Sea in a peaceful manner. ASEAN also has the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, and we try to contribute to peace, freedom and common prosperity. Last November, Indonesia and Vietnam reached an agreement over EEZ, and this showed our shared commitment to pursue our goals through peaceful means.
Is ASEAN continuing to pursue dialogue and, eventually, an agreement with China on the matter? Considering, historically, China has been rather reluctant to formulate one with regional organization and opt for a country-to-country dialogue.
Yes. ASEAN already has the Declaration on the Conduct (of Parties in the South China Sea), and we have been working to push for a code of conduct for ASEAN countries and China on how to conduct themselves in the South China Sea. Hopefully, this can be finalized soon so that every country can agree to avoid conflict.
How is Indonesia anticipating potential conflict?
First is through the ASEAN forum, like last year when I attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had the ADMM-Plus forum which included ASEAN and eight other countries, including the United States and China. ASEAN and the U.S. conducted a dialogue, as well as with China and the rest of the eight “plus” countries. This is an excellent forum for all countries to engage in discussion.
There are also military co-operations. In June, the Indonesian Navy will hold the Multilateral Naval Exercise Komodo, or MNEK, in Makassar (South Sulawesi province). At least 49 countries will participate in the exercise, and among those who have registered are Australia, the United Kingdom, ASEAN countries, Japan, and China. What’s interesting is that North Korea and South Korea will also be present. So far, the U.S. has yet to confirm its participation, but we still have time. Hopefully, the U.S. can take part.
We’re hoping that through such forums and programs, China, ASEAN, and other major powers with interest in the South China Sea can sit together and interact, so tensions can be reduced.
In regard to the protection of Indonesian fishermen in the Natuna Sea, how is the safeguarding effort carried out?
We, especially the Navy, are certainly obliged to safeguard Indonesian fishermen who are catching fish there. We also have gas field in Natuna that’s currently being explored—we also protect that.
We’re also working with other countries like the U.S. and Australia in maritime security. Last year, China invited us to participate in a joint exercise with several ASEAN countries, but we didn’t take part because (the program) was held at the end of the year and didn’t fit our budget. But who knows? China might invite us again this year for a naval exercise, and if ASEAN countries agree, it can be done.
Editor’s note: Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the coast of Natuna is overlapped by China’s disputed South China Sea claim.
You mentioned the Navy. How is the security coordination in Natuna? What is the role of the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, for example?
They synergize and back each other up.
The command comes from the Navy.
It was reported in 2020 that the Indonesian government would start a discussion on an omnibus bill on maritime security which will designate Bakamla as the country’s sole coast guard, and merge other state agencies with similar and overlapping roles. How is the discussion going?
The process is probably still ongoing; I haven’t received the latest update. However, Bakamla will eventually have a role in coordinating security efforts in territorial waters.
Editor’s note: Bakamla (Indonesian Maritime Security Agency) is a maritime patrol and rescue agency, a non-ministerial government institution, which reports directly to the President through the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs.
Will security efforts in Natuna include reinforcement of military base?
So far, no. During the leadership of (former armed forces commander) Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, there was discussion to make Natuna a so-called “aircraft carrier”. But currently, we focus on improving military posture, particularly the Navy. A number of our ships will be refurbished, and their capabilities will be upgraded. We’re also planning to buy new frigates and corvettes, as well as submarines from France.
All of those are to strengthen our maritime defense, for deterrent effect.
And it’s done in parallel with diplomatic efforts?
Yes, we certainly maintain diplomacy.
How’s this year’s outlook on Indonesia-China relations? Is there a high possibility of conflict, like when Chinese fishing vessels entered our waters, guarded by its coast guard?
Hopefully not. At present, our relations with China, including in defense and economy, are good. On defense, just a few months ago, Defense Minister Praboowo Subianto visited Xian and had a dialogue with China’s then-Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
It’s to our advantage to have good relations as a non-aligned state, with free and active foreign policy. We have dialogue forums with the U.S. and Australia, as well as with China. And when we spot tension heightening between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, we could play a part in reducing that tension.
In regard to that, the president of Taiwan visited the U.S. recently, and there had been warnings from China. What has Indonesia done to defuse the situation?
So far, probably only on diplomatic level; on defense, we don’t have the capacity. However, in diplomacy, I’m sure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has made efforts, probably at the executive level.
But from what I’m seeing now, an open conflict seems unlikely. We’re trying to maintain the status quo, and we still adhere to the One China policy; we respect Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China.
So, for now, Indonesia is trying to preserve the status quo?
In the event of war, has Indonesia coordinated with other countries, including in ASEAN, or even the U.S.?
For Taiwan specifically, we haven’t been maintaining specific communication. However, we make use of Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship and the ADMM to create forums for dialogue.
If an escalation takes place and war breaks out, is Indonesia ready?
We will not be at war. Since we’re non-aligned, we will not be involved in any war.
Are there any specific strategies prepared? For example, building or strengthening military bases.
We only focus to strengthen our posture. For bases, we certainly will maintain each base used by the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
Top photo credit: Diana Mariska. Director General of Defense Strategy, the Ministry of Defense, Major General Bambang Trisnohadi at his office in Jakarta.