Tensions in North Natuna Sea: Assessing Bakamla’s UNCLOS Understanding

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Siswanto Rusdi Director, The National Maritime Institute (NAMARIN)

IO – Indonesia and China recently saw tensions rise in the North Natuna Sea, triggered by a Chinese Coast Guard vessel after it conducted ma-neuvers in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Indonesia re-sponded by deploying the Bakamla (Badan Keamanan Laut), the nation-al Maritime Security Agency, and a patrol boat was assigned to operate in the vicinity of the Chinese vessel. Indonesian media hailed Baka-mla and blamed China for the tensions. However, Hikmahanto Juwana, a renowned professor of International Law at the University of Indonesia, has reportedly said that the Chinese deployment in North Natuna Sea was in line with the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He argued that Bakamla’s reaction to the Chi-nese maneuver in the sea is grossly over-reactive, given that the Chinese patrol vessel was basically entering the EEZ, which under the UNCLOS is the high seas, wherein ships enjoy freedom of navigation. Additionally, it does not challenge the sovereignty to a coastal state.

This is not the first time that ten-sion involving coast guards from both sides has been witnessed at the same location. Although each case since 2016 has been different in character, the reponse from the Indonesian side has been assessed as over-reactive and may have been carried out to stoke domestic nationalism. It also raises an important question about Bakamla’s understanding and inter-pretation of the 1982 UNCLOS. 

Be that as it may, Bakamla is low on capabilities and this deficit stems from its controversial institutional background. The agency was hur-riedly set up during the last stages of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyo-no’s administration, after its require-ment was deliberated in the House of Representatives for over two years. That time it was hailed by the local maritime communities as the pana-cea for Indonesia’s complicated, inef-ficient and shipping players – burden-ing maritime security management.

Bakamla was set to conduct coast guard tasks like law enforcement at sea, maritime search and rescue operations and others, as stipulated in Law No. 32/2014 on Maritime Af-fairs. This legal basis is weak because in Indonesia legal system every law regulates a certain sector with all its ramification. Bakamla legal founda-tion is outside the remit of the criteria and its designation (maritime affairs) is completely generic. Subsequently, President Joko Widodo issued Pres-idential Regulation No. 178/2014 to make Bakamla operational on De-cember 13, 2014.

In the last six years, the agency has submitted a bill on Maritime Se-curity to the Parliament but it did not get any traction from the House of Representatives although it is consid-ered as one of top priority bills to be discussed immediately. Furthermore, two senior ministers even disclosed that the government planned to lodge an omnibus law to empower Baka-mla; unfortunately, these agendas have been postponed.

Although its legal status is far from perfect for a maritime security and safety institution, Bakamla nev-ertheless is acquiring assets (patrol boats, bases/command centers). According to an Agency white paper, it currently manages three maritime zones with headquarters in Ambon and Manado of North Sulawesi prov-ince. These offices are supported by 20 bases – both stationary and mo-bile – established across the archipel-ago. All of the facilities are equipped with electronic devices to read dis-tress signals through global mari-time distress safety system/GMDSS and ship identification information via automatic identification system/AIS. Other vessel tracking systems are also in place.

Bakamla also operates two sat-ellite ground stations in Bangka Belitung and Bitung (North Sulawe-si province) to provide them with maritime aerial surveillance. There are plans to develop several similar facilities but their development had stopped due to issues concerning procurement practices. The Agency maintains scores of patrol boats to conduct interceptions, of which the biggest is KN Tanjung Datu 1101 which is home-ported in Batam, Riau Island province. The vessel is also de-ployed for maritime diplomacy and has conducted join exercise with the Indian Coast Guard.

While the government has decid-ed to make investments in building a good force structure for the Agency, Bakamla’s main drawback is human capital. Since its establishment, the Agency has had a mix of staff drawn from various government agencies such as Indonesia Navy (TNI AL), Office of General Attorney, National Police among others. Their training/education also vary with minimum familiarity on existing international maritime regulations. Bakamla has plans to  recruit fresh staff and es-tablish a dedicated academy.

The biggest slice of Bakamla’s personnel are from the TNI (AL)who are seconded to it but they are freely assigned back to their headquarters mostly after they are promoted to a higher rank in the agency. Mean-while, the head of Bakamla is always an active flag officer of TNI AL who is about to retire or is being promoted as TNI AL chief of staff. On the oth-er hand, by law Bakamla is a civilian body but so far no civilian man/wom-an has been appointed as its head.

There are several operational and administrative weaknesses in the Bakamla, and North Natuna Sea could see more tensions in the fu-ture. Therefore, a more robust and clear understanding of international maritime law become increasingly im-portant for maritime law enforcement agencies. 

It will be useful for Bakamla to explore a dialogue with the Indian Coast Guard with who it has a MoU on ‘Maritime Safety and Security’ to best practices. After all, the Indi-an Coast Guard was set up in 1978 with human and material resources from the Indian Navy and has faced similar challenges while growing up, to become a force of over 150 vessels and 60 aircraft.