Indonesia will remain firm in protecting its sovereignty on maritime issues ranging from the South China Sea to illegal fishing, a senior adviser to Indonesian president Joko Widodo said on Tuesday.
“The sovereignty of Indonesia cannot be negotiated. We are very, very firm on this,” Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, former commander of the Indonesian special forces, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington D.C.
On the South China Sea issue, Luhut said that while Indonesia could help in “bridging” differences between Association of Southeast Asian Nations claimant states and China, it would also not shy away from exploiting resources in what it viewed as its own waters. This was especially true of the resource-rich Natuna islands, where Indonesia has been concerned that a portion of its surrounding waters overlap within China’s expansive nine-dash line claim.
“Regarding the Natuna, we understand very much this is the territory of Indonesia, and I don’t think there are any problems so far. I think we are going to do exploration for gas,” Luhut added.
He also said Indonesian energy giant Pertamina’s cooperation with Chevron, an American firm, in the Natuna Islands served to protect Indonesia’s claim from China because of US involvement.
“This is one of the target[s], give the signal to China: okay, you cannot play here because this is also the presence of the US,” Luhut said.
Luhut downplayed any divisions between the Indonesian foreign ministry and the Indonesian military on the South China Sea issue, despite pointed comments from Indonesian military officials earlier this year about China’s assertiveness and its threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty.
More broadly, Luhut said Widodo’s plans to increase Indonesia’s defense budget to 1.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or higher and up to $20 billion by 2019 in order to better protect the borders of the world’s largest archipelagic state. Thus far, Indonesia’s defense spending has never represented more than 1 percent of GDP, lagging far behind neighbors like Malaysia and Singapore.
Luhut also said the administration would boost sea patrols and add vessels and aircraft to strengthen its air and naval capabilities, including more patrol boats as well as C-130 transport planes. Indonesia has struggled to police its exclusive economic zone, which stretches for almost six million square kilometers.
“By doing so, we can increase the performance of our armed forces and we can manage or protect our own sovereignty,” Luhut added.
Luhut’s remarks also come amid a heavy crackdown by the Widodo administration on illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. Last week, Indonesia orchestrated a highly public sinking of three Vietnamese boats, part of what Jokowi described as a “shock therapy” approach to deter the nearly 5,000 foreign vessels that pass through Indonesia illegally every day.
“Government policy today is very hard, very tough. We are not allow[ing]any more illegal fishing within Indonesian territory,” Luhut said.
He argued the Widodo administration was forced to adopt a hard-line in tackling this challenge because previous approaches – which included a mix of dialogue, arresting fishermen and bringing cases to court – had not produced any results.
“This kind of policy basically proves to the people of Indonesia that President Jokowi is serious about addressing this problem,” he said.
Luhut added that cracking down on illegal fishing would also ensure that Indonesia is able to fully realize the economic benefit from its own sovereign territory and use it to invest in healthcare, infrastructure and education. Government studies have shown that the country loses billions of dollars in revenue annually from this practice, both in terms of catches as well as taxes and associated fees.
“We can save maybe $20 to $23 billion per annum if we are successful in tackling illegal fishing,” he added.