Indonesia mobilizes neighbors to counter China in South China Sea dispute

By Siswanto Rusdi, director of National Maritime Institute (NAMARIN), an independent think tank in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Indonesia’s Badan Keamanan Laut or Bakamla, the maritime agency in charge of safety and security, is looking to cooperate with other Southeast Asian countries in responding to China’s belligerent activities in the South China Sea.  However, to be more effective at the regional level, Indonesia has to first strengthen its internal protocols and to coordinate closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have a consistent foreign policy.

Bakamla has invited maritime officials from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to meet in February to “share experiences and foster brotherhood”.  Media reports indicated that these countries are open to the idea, having previously already convened an ASEAN Coast Guard Forum last October.  Additionally, Bakamla can also consider leveraging on existing mechanism and platform, such as the Head of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGAM).

This Bakamla’s initiative has earned praises from Members of Parliament, public figures, maritime experts and the general public who are worried about China infringing on Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty.

Although not a party to the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia nevertheless has been subjected to China’s numerous incursions into the North Natuna Sea, Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) closest to the South China Sea.  In recent years, China has sent fishing vessels accompanied by coast guard and maritime militia to the North Natuna Sea.

Fixing internal issues first

Now, with popular support behind it, Bakamla has to work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to institutionalize a common position, to have a standard messaging and to present a united front.  Bakamla has to push through a stalled legislative draft, an executive order granting it more legal power (known locally as PP or Peraturan Pemerintah) initiated by the office of Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security. 

As it stands, Bakamla, under the jurisdiction of the Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security and backed by presidential regulation Law No. 32/2014 on Maritime Affairs and No. 178/2014 as a legal basis, is still lacking in enforcement power.  Therefore, it is important for the PP draft bill to be passed by parliament to formally recognized Bakamla as a maritime security and safety institution and to give it the necessary authority and power.

Bakamla manages three maritime zones with headquarters in Ambon and Manado of North Sulawesi province.  These command centers, supported by 20 bases both stationery and mobile established across the archipelago, are all equipped with vessel tracking systems.

Siswanto Rusdi
Siswanto Rusdi
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