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Implications Of Indonesia’s New Military Base In The South China Sea – Analysis


Though Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, Jakarta and Beijing have entered into skirmishes in the Natuna area.

By Premesha Saha

A new military base was inaugurated by the Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander, Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto on 18 December 2018 in Natuna Besar, a disputed territory between Indonesia and China in the South China Sea. The two countries have conflicting interests and rights on this island, which is the largest in the southern peripheral of the South China Sea.

Though Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but Jakarta and Beijing have entered into skirmishes involving fishing vessels in the disputed Natuna area for long. In March 2016, a special task force of the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries had captured a Chinese fishing boat within Indonesia’s 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the Natuna islands, northwest of Borneo.

Indonesia has always been ‘sensitive’ about its sovereignty claims and rights. The government of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and especially Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti have taken stern steps in protecting the rights of the Indonesian fishermen by sinking and burning illegal fishing boats in Indonesian waters.

Besides these the Indonesian President has in many cases, for instance during his visit to Japan after he took office asserted that, “China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis under international law.”

President Widodo after the frequent incidents of Chinese fishing boats illegally entering the Indonesian waters had visited the Natunas on a naval warship and held a meeting with a few of his cabinet ministers on the warship. In mid- July 2017, the Indonesian Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs launched a new map renaming the part of the disputed sea, which falls within Indonesia’s EEZ as North Natuna Sea (Laut Natuna Uttara).

The Jokowi government has undoubtedly started to focus on the Natunas after the recurring incidents on illegal fishing involving Chinese fishing boats in the waters around the Natunas. It was during this time in 2016, that the budget for the establishment of a military base in the Natunas was approved by the Indonesian Parliament.

During the inauguration of the base, Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto had said, “the outpost is designed to work as a deterrent against any potential security threats, particularly on border areas,” according to military spokesman Colonel Sus Taibur Rahman.

While security analysts are dubbing this as Indonesia’s attempt to send a strong message to China, like Collin Coh of RSIS Singapore have mentioned that “the plan for a military hub in the Natuna Islands had been in the making for years. The March 2016 incident with China gave more impetus to the plan.” Indonesian scholars like Evan Laksmana have highlighted that the new base is “not just about deterring China.” Additionally, given the ongoing deliberations within the ASEAN on the drafting of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea disputes, what impact will this newly built military base on the Natunas have on these discussions, given that Indonesia is a forerunner in these negotiations also remains to be seen.

Indonesia’s rationale behind this new base needs to be analysed in the wider context of the emerging dynamics of the Indo-Pacific concept. On a close observation of how Indonesia’s policies have evolved under the current government in the strategic, diplomatic as well as in the defence realm, stark changes can be noticed. Illegal fishing has always been a matter of concern for Indonesia, but never has such hardline measures been implemented.

During his campaign period, President Jokowi had laid out his desire for Indonesia to emerge as a regional maritime power in the Indo-Pacific region. This military base can be seen as a part of Indonesia’s attempt to emerge as a noticeable maritime player in the Indo-Pacific region. Indonesia’s naval modernization have been taking place at a good pace with increase in defence budget allocation as well as through acquiring new ships to replace Indonesia’s ageing naval fleet. The Indonesian Ministry of Defence had plans of upgrading the Natuna base since 2009, after the initiation of the ‘Minimum Essential Forces’ doctrine. The Natuna unit would host composite battalions from the Army and Marines as well as numerous advanced platforms — from submarines, UAVs, and warships to fighter jets and various missile systems — and other supporting infrastructure.

There are plans in place to form a third command, which is the Eastern Command. After the completion of the Natuna unit, tri-service integrated units in Saumlaki, Morotai, Biak, and Merauke will be established for the TNI to have a greater focus on the eastern flank, which is the Pacific Ocean, where powers like China and the US are very active. According to Indonesian analyst, Evan Laksmana, “The Natuna unit will also pave the way for the other integrated units set to be developed in eastern Indonesia, close to the Timor Sea, Arafura Sea, Celebes Sea, and the Pacific Ocean.” In the past, defence policies in Indonesia had a ‘continental overtone’, concentrated more on internal security challenges and to a certain extent on the non-traditional security threats in the Strait of Malacca. The ‘eastern balancing’ is a very recent development.

Below is a map showing the plans for the establishment of Third Infantry Division in South Sulawesi, the Navy’s third Armada and Marine Force in Western Papua and the Air Force’s Third Operational Command in Papua as well.

Source: Evan Laksmana
Source: Evan Laksmana

Table 1: Indonesia Naval Force Evolution

Type and Description1990199520002005201020132015202020252030
KekuatanPemukul / Striking Force
Missile Craft44444714294444
Mine Warfare641111111111111010
KekuatanPatroli / Patrolling Force
Patrol, Offshore891114141412121212
Patrol, Inshore14131113303030303030
KekuatanPendukung / Supporting Force
Military Sealift Command / KOLINLAMIL
Inter-Island Sealift979101066666
Naval Aviation
Naval Aviation655773106112112112112
Fixed Wing3835516670707070

Source: Global Security

Table 2: Real (1990-2013) and Projected Naval force based on Green Water Navy 2024 Scenario

Source: Global Security
Source: Global Security

The development of the Natuna base can be seen within the wider gambit of Indonesia’s ‘eastern balancing.’ With the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ concept gaining a lot of traction, President Jokowi’s vision of Indonesia emerging as a ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ in the Indo-Pacific is also finally beginning to take shape. Indonesia can be seen as also taking a lead in the ASEAN debates of forming an Indo-Pacific concept where the ASEAN centrality and ASEAN led mechanisms would form the focal point. The importance of Indonesia taking the lead in the ASEAN has always been pointed out by the other ASEAN member countries. Former Foreign Minister of Singapore, George Yeo had mentioned at a conference, Singapore Perspectives, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) on 28 January 2019, “Without Indonesia, it’s very hard for ASEAN to coalesce a common position.”

Indonesia no longer just wants to make its presence felt in the Indo-Pacific region in the diplomatic circles and the multilateral foras, but through the revamping of its naval forces, commands, bases and its ‘eastern balancing’ wants to be more than just a ‘middle power’ in this dynamic region.

While delivering her speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 11 January 2018, entitled, “Partner for Peace, Security and Prosperity” Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi proposed the Indonesian concept of the Indo-Pacific (Konsep Arsitektur Indo-Pasifik). She noted, “together with ASEAN, Indonesia will continue to contribute in advancing strong positive cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, instead of a cooperation based on suspicion or worse, perception of threat. Indonesia would work with countries in the region to develop an Indo- Pacific cooperation umbrella aimed at building cooperation that was meant to be free, open, inclusive and comprehensive.”

Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the Shangrila Dialogue on 1 June 2018, for the first time laid out India’s version of the Indo-Pacific concept. Both the concepts have a similar policy undertone. He mentioned, “Indo-Pacific stands for a free, open, inclusive region, which embraces all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it. Southeast Asia is at its centre and, ASEAN has been and will be central to its future.”

The South China Sea connects India to most of its major partners in the East and a significant part of India’s overseas trade flows in this direction. ASEAN alone accounts for over 20 per cent of that trade. India and Indonesia have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement and both have a similar vision of maritime cooperation, peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, with Indonesia’s newly adopted ‘eastern balancing’ strategy, India-Indonesia relations in the Indo-Pacific can attain greater trajectories.

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