IO – A few weeks before the Indonesian National Armed Forces Day (5
October), a new page on the long-standing issue in Natuna has been written in the annals of history. On 9 September 2021, President Jokowi signed Presidential Regulation No. 85/2021 that officially adopts the 2022 Government Work Plan. In this regulation, the government made a major policy concerning the defense and security of the Natuna Region. Through the Strengthening Polhukhankam (Politics, Law, Defense, and Security) Stability and Public Service Transformation National Priority (PN), the government initiates the Strengthening Maritime Security in Natuna Major Project (MP), which had several details that would impact the Indonesian policy in the disputed area. First, the government recognizes the underlying situation that needs to be changed through this policy, which consist of “threat escalation in the Natuna Region and the increasing risk of piracy;
violence and crime at sea; Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF); and transnational crimes”. Second, this MP is aimed at “the construction of defense infrastructure facilities and their support as well as the procurement of marine security equipment.” Third, this MP is hoped to
“increase the deterrent effect and enforce sovereignty in the Natuna waters; reduce piracy activity; violence and crime at sea; IUUF; and transnational crimes”. Fourth, the implementation of this MP is “fnanced from the State Revenue and Expenditure Budget (APBN) with an indication of funding for five years amounting to 12.2 trillion IDR.” Fifth, the government agencies that would be responsible for this MP are the Ministry of Defense (Kemhan)/Navy and the Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut/Bakamla). Sixth, the highlighted implementation of this MP would be the procurement of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and the construction of Strategic Island Military Infrastructure. Last but not least, the preferred outcome of this MP consist of three objectives: no violation
of jurisdiction in the Natuna sea area, 40.59% adequacy of defense equipment and infrastructure for the Navy in Natuna by 2022, and 44.17% adequacy of marine security equipment and infrastructure for Bakamla in Natuna by 2022. By dissecting the details of this policy, several insights could be interpreted on how the Indonesian government thinks and acts
concerning the Natuna issue, in particular from a political-security
On the issue of grand strategy, this MP seems to signal the continuation of the hedging strategy, or what Indonesian diplomats called it as “rowing between two reefs”. As the largest country in Southeast Asia, the timing for a decisive Indonesian response to the brewing tension in the Indo-Pacifc has become a strong point of interest in the desks of policymakers, both in
superpowers and middle powers alike. Due to its long-standing tradition of a “free and active” foreign policy, Indonesia was always adamant on ambiguous, sometimes secretive, positions on matters concerning external factors on national security issues. In other words, Indonesia rarely takes an open and firm position on national security issues. This action, in
what experts called “hedging”, was deemed necessary as open accusations would result in creating more tension and would force Indonesia to take a firm stance against the perpetrator, where it could create economic and political repercussions for Jakarta. In this situation, the government believes that it would be best to de-escalate the tension to keep options open for cooperation so that Indonesia could avoid trying its hand in a hostile environment with a foreign country. For example, when the conflict in Papua reached a boiling point in 2019, Strengthening Maritime Security in Natuna the Indonesian police stated that foreign intervention was at play
in the riots, and thus it needs to cooperate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to solve the issue. However, the police stopped short of releasing the information on the details of the actors involved in the riots. More importantly, it maintained full silence on the nationalities. At that time, reports circulated in the Indonesian media that foreigners of Australian origin are contributing to the increasing tension in Papua, and thus suspicion among the public is rampant. However, it should be remembered that it was the media, at best a key opinion leader, that openly confessed their discontent towards Australians meddling in Indonesian internal affairs. The Indonesian government, in this regard the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, would again reaffrm the strong ties between Indonesia and Australia, and the government of Australia would receive by saying that it does not interfere with the domestic affairs of Indonesia. Whether the statements made in the public match with the implementation on the field is not in the scope of this article.
And once again, this practice could be seen in this MP. In the introduction section, Indonesia recognizes both traditional and non-traditional issues that needed to be addressed by this new policy. In the aspect of the traditional issue, Indonesia recognized that there has been a “threat escalation” in the Natuna Region.
However, in this document, the government does not point out the details of this so-called threat. What is the threat? Where does it come from? How could it be considered a national security threat? In other governmental documents, such as the Presidential Regulation No.8/2021 that explains the General Policy of National Defense for 2020-2024, the government explicitly included the violations perpetrated by the Chinese Coast Guard “threaten the territorial integrity of Indonesia” in its Strategic Development Analysis (Analisis Perkembangan Lingkungan Strategies). Seeing that China is the largest foreign trading partner for both Indonesia and the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia could have followed the hedging guidebook by not re-mentioning the threat from China in this MP, as Indonesia was trying to keep its option open to maintain its hedging position against the renewed era of great power competition, even though
recently China still sends its fshing and maritime security vessels to Indonesian EEZ. However, if not carefully handled, this hedging approach has drawbacks that could harm Indonesia’s national interest, as other
governments are left to their own interpretations of what constitutes a “threat escalation” for the country. Is their presence near the Natuna region characterized as a threat to Indonesia because they are monitoring other vessels, conducting freedom of navigation operations, or merely passing through? If these countries believe they pose a threat to Indonesia, it might trigger an arms race in the region, especially given the recent military build-up in Natuna. Certainly, pouring gasoline into the fame of tension is not in Indonesia’s national interest , and thus some calls needed to be made as reassurance. If, somehow, government offcials reassure diplomatic partners that their country does not constitute a “threat escalation”, then foreign policymakers would ponder two critical issues: what makes these states think that Indonesia would not say the same thing to all of its diplomatic partners that they are not a threat? Then, how could these
states believe the reassurance made by Indonesia, if the same message is also made by Indonesian diplomats to all of its diplomatic partners?Through sheer luck, perhaps. In the end, ambiguity would create suspicion and further unintended consequences in the future. The logic is simple:
by saying that there is a threat in the region, then there must be a
source to this threat, that there is a perpetrator. Indonesia could not expect other countries to just believe that they are not threatening Indonesia if Indonesia said the same thing to all countries. It is all right to take a firm stance by openly acknowledging the source of the threat, but at the same time, Indonesia should also declare that they have full intention to solve this issue through peaceful means. With this move, Indonesia has mitigated the potential security dilemma with powers that had a stake in the Indo-Pacifc, while at the same time, keep its hedging position by championing cooperative measures with the country that poses the threat. This is an
important step to be taken, considering that this MP involves the reinforcement of lethal forces in the Natuna Region.