IO – This past week, in Singapore at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, leaders from the region and China announced they were making progress on a code of conduct to govern navigation routes and other activities in the South China Sea.
A critical shipping route for Asia with over US$5 trillion worth of trade passing through its waters in an area encompassing three and a half million square kilometers, the South China Sea has, for many years, been the subject for territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over reefs, banks and islands. At stake is the strategic control of vital shipping lanes, the right to explore and exploit huge potential reserves of gas and oil, as well as rights to fishing areas rich in marine life.
Although the news coming out of the summit is reason for some optimism, one needs to keep in mind talks over a code of conduct have been in progress as far back as 2002, and it will take at least another three years before a final agreement is completed, if at all. In the meantime, there is still a grave risk of miscalculations and conflict between China and disputant states—which includes Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia—as well as with the United States and its allies, who, by show of naval force, are insisting on what it calls “freedom of navigation”.
Besides the threat posed by Beijing’s machinations to wrestle control over its neighbors’ sovereign waters, not to mention the risk of the South China Sea dispute inadvertently turning into a military conflagration, Indonesia must consider how to prepare better for combating other immediate and future challenges looming across the horizon.
One is piracy, a problem that has barely been addressed by the Jokowi administration. The United Nations has declared the straits of Malacca and Singapore as the most dangerous waters in the world, and for good reason: Every year, on average more than forty percent of the world’s pirate attacks occur along the straits and it environs. The straits—which are global shipping highways—see more than a hundred thousand ships passing through their waters each year and account for a third of the world’s maritime commerce, which explains, in large part, why criminal organizations have found the area to be such a lucrative area. Not just looking to loot equipment and cash, modern-day pirates have launched large-scale attacks—with military-like precision—against high-value targets such as tankers and crude palm oil barges in areas such as the seas off Batam and Bintan islands.
With ninety five thousand kilometers of coastline and enticing ‘targets’, coupled with poorly equipped law enforcement agencies, it is hardly surprising to learn Indonesia ranks number one in the world when it comes to piracy. Enforcement teams tasked with securing the seas complain their shallow-draft vessels are incapable of long-range patrols. Making matters worse, patrol units are hampered by inadequate budgets, which means spare parts and maintenance are always a problem. There are also reasonable suspicions, according to piracy experts, that in many cases there is collusion between shipping companies and their staff with the criminal organizations behind the attacks.
Another challenge, one that has barely caught the Indonesian media’s attention but is surely to loom larger in the near future, is the lack of Indonesia’s cyber-security capabilities. Recognizing the potential risks of digital intrusions such as espionage, cyber-attacks, cybercrime and cyber warfare, last year the Jokowi administration finally set in place the creation of a national cyber security agency—this is the first step in protecting Indonesia against attacks on its financial institutions, critical infrastructure, electoral systems as well as its national defense and intelligence establishments, which, combined, have the potential to disrupt and inflict substantial damage to the economy and compromise Indonesia’s national security interests.
Yet, simply setting up a national cyber security agency is far from guaranteeing success. The hard work—which entails outlining a cyber security strategy, establishing national standards, training and recruiting IT specialists, and agreeing upon the roles and responsibilities for regulators, law enforcement, the military and police—has hardly begun. Already there are turf wars between the various stakeholders involved in cyber security, and until those are sorted out it will prove impossible for the government to properly coordinate the various stakeholders and therefore effectively address digital threats.
For sure, much more needs to be done for Indonesia to prepare itself for guarding itself against present and future dangers. The Jokowi administration has squandered the past five years in doing business the old way whilst failing to expend sufficient resources on modernizing its military and law enforcement agencies to protect its maritime borders and sea-lanes from potential conventional threats such as coming from China, non-conventional threats such as piracy and cyber intrusions that can be deployed by foreign parties to steal state secrets, disrupt the economy, and, even interfere in our elections.