Soundings Papers: Indonesia as a growing maritime power: possible implications for Australia

Soundings No. 4
Soundings No. 4

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Geoffrey Till

There are two reasons why Australia should be interested in the new but now much-discussed maritime aspirations of Indonesia and the trials and tribulations Indonesia faces in turning those aspirations into reality. The first and most obvious is that the maritime performance of its nearest and potentially most powerful neighbour are bound to play an important role in shaping the context in which Australia itself defines its own maritime interests and acts to defend them. The emergence of a new and significant maritime power in Australia’s immediate strategic vicinity is bound to be a matter of major interest.

The second reason is perhaps a little less obvious, and is the focus of this paper. Indonesia and Australia are alike in being Indo-Pacific countries that are growing their maritime and naval forces. All around the region - from China to Brunei - naval modernisation is proceeding apace, such that for the first time in 400 years, Asian naval spending exceeds that of Western Europe. In sharp distinction to their European counterparts, Asian navies are making use of expanding budgets to develop new operational aspirations, to go further afield and to perform increasingly ambitious tasks. Because some of these tasks imply competition rather than cooperation between navies, there are even probably exaggerated fears of a naval arms race developing in the region with unforeseeable but portentous implications for regional stability.

Given the current level of dispute in the South and East China seas, it is perhaps unsurprising that the focus of most current discussion should be on the causes, prospects and possible consequences of growing maritime power and naval expansion in the region, rather than on the problems that countries face in turning such plans into reality. But in fact there are a great many hurdles and challenges to be overcome before this can be done. Although every country is unique in its geostrategic setting, cultural expectation, economic requirements and resources, they all face similar challenges. Accordingly, Indonesia’s experience in growing its maritime power will not be of interest to Australia solely in terms of the possible product, but also as a particular illustration of the process of becoming a maritime power. An exercise in contrast and comparison between different countries in how they set about a common task like building a bigger navy may well provide a better understanding of the problems that each faces in doing so.

But, first, a short excursion into definitions seems necessary. This paper draws a sharp distinction between ‘being maritime’ and ‘being a maritime power’. Being maritime - or not - is often a matter of circumstance, something over which a country has little or no control. It means simply having maritime interests that derive from the international context in which countries find themselves, whether they like it or not. These maritime interests may derive from simple geography and the economic imperatives it sets. They may be determined by experience, habits of thought, culture and practice that are the consequence of long years of responding to these maritime circumstances. Some of these interests bear a distinct similarity to Mahan’s famous conditions for sea power. But the point is that they are interests only. They do not imply the capability to defend or develop them.

Being a maritime power, on the other hand, means having just such a capability to some extent or other. Most, perhaps all, countries will naturally want to become maritime powers in this sense, because it means being able to turn having maritime interests into an advantage and to greater control over one’s destiny. It requires an enhanced willingness and capacity to respond actively to one’s circumstances. But Indonesia’s recent and current experience shows that growing maritime power in this way is not easy. That experience has lessons to teach.