Indonesia’s upcoming presidential election on Wednesday, April 17 has not only seized the energy of the Indonesian people but has also attracted global attention. One of the reasons is because Indonesia's geopolitical bargaining power is quite strong and is hotly contested by many countries who want a piece of the pie.

It is thus important that the country’s geopolitical direction is defined clearly by the winner of the presidential race between incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto. The winner must make sure that Indonesia is not complacent, let alone open a gap allowing the intervention of other countries in the country’s democracy. Throughout Indonesia’s history, various challenges and threats from internal and external forces have emerged. The country’s next president must have a comprehensive vision in strengthening Indonesia's geopolitical strategic position.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with opponent Prabowo Subianto.

China and Indonesia as an example

In the past recent years, Indonesia has been facing various geopolitical issues. One obvious example is the status of the relationship between Indonesia and China. In 2017, the Indonesian government, through the Maritime Ministry's Coordinating Ministry, updated the country’s official map, notably defining the Indonesian sea border with other countries. Among the striking change was the name of the South China Sea, which was replaced by the North Natuna Sea.

The name change at that time immediately sparked strong protests from China. However, the Indonesian government continues to insist that the newly named body of water, which is also claimed by China and several other nations, is still in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles in Indonesia.

A 2014 map showing nautical claims in the disputed South China Sea. (Credit: Goran tek-en / CC BY-SA 3.0)

There were a number of considerations for putting forward a new map. First, there is a territorial sea border agreement that is already in effect, namely between Indonesia and Singapore on the west and east sides, as well as the Indonesia and the Philippines EEZ boundary agreement which has been mutually agreed upon and ratified.

Second, there are Philippine and Chinese arbitration decisions that give international law jurisprudence that small islands or small corals, which are in the middle of the sea and cannot support human life, do not have the right to be claimed using the boundary of EEZ 200 nautical miles from land. Consequently, there are several small islands belonging to neighboring Indonesia which are only given a 12 nautical mile territorial limit.

Third, the government wants to reinforce claims in the Malacca Strait by simplifying boundary claims to facilitate law enforcement. Fourth, there is a need to renew the sea column north of Natuna.

The Strait of Malacca is a critical waterway for global trade and defense purposes. (Credit: US Department of Defense)

Fifth, there is a clear boundary in the area near the Singapore border. Thus, the map needs to be updated so that security forces and law enforcement from the Navy, Customs and Excise can easily patrol there.

It is also stated that the determination of new maps has a positive urgency value.

First, doing so increases legal certainty and national confidence in maintaining the territory of Indonesia. Second, the increasing potential of natural resources can be explored for the prosperity of the people of Indonesia. Third, new maps will make national borders clearer, thereby reducing the potential for conflict with countries that have direct borders such as Singapore and the Philippines. In addition, the direct impact of updating this map is related to the navigation of ships entering and leaving the territory of Indonesia.

Supporters of Indonesia’s nautical territory claims further state that the determination of new maps is not a signal of Indonesia's aggressiveness. On the contrary, this is an effort to help other countries have the same perspective on national borders so that they do not interfere with each other. Indonesia continues to provide an opportunity to the international community to use the Indonesian Archipelago Sea Channel (ALKI) as long as it does not conflict with sovereignty and peace.

Geopolitical vision

The next president must have a vision to revitalize geopolitics and optimize international geostrategy. China, for example, has the potential to provide geopolitical pressure and drag in the regional constellation. Indonesia must possess and store effective weapons to deal with this Chinese giant.

Indonesia has many strategic points that require geopolitical strengthening. Aside from being a source of raw material for advanced (industrial) countries, Indonesia is a market that has never satisfied developed countries due to its demographic factors. There is also the matter of the choke points in the straits and waters of Indonesia. Of the seven world strategic straits, four of them are in Indonesia. This condition can be a strong bargaining position in the global and regional level diplomacy forums.

Indonesia must not be dazzled by the greatness and strength of China or other countries. The principle of equality is important to be motivated by diplomacy. A strong foundation based on spatial studies and international law must still be prepared and adhered to.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

The next Indonesian leader cannot be dazzled by Chinese power.

This country was once successful in setting boundaries through the Djuanda Declaration on Dec. 13, 1957. At that time, the results of the Djuanda Declaration were more powerful, namely the area of ​​the Republic of Indonesia's sovereignty increased 2.5-fold.

The Djuanda Declaration was challenged by strong countries, such as the United States and Australia, which were based on continents or land. The long journey of convincing other countries by diplomats finally led to recognition by the inclusion of the concept of an archipelagic state in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982. This success is important to learn from and serve as a motivation for diplomacy going forward which is increasingly difficult to get pressure and challenges.

The geopolitical situation in the South China Sea remains a hot issue. Regional disputes occur between several ASEAN countries (Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines), Taiwan, and China. The impact of disputes must be anticipated not to spread to the territory of our country. The Indonesian government must continue to carry out routine patrols and to strengthen the existence of countries in the region that Indonesia claims.

Indonesia is important to build an axis and learn from other countries in dispute with China. The priority of diplomacy must continue its struggle. Requests for the facilitation of a neutral third party or UN agency can also be considered if diplomacy experiences a dead end.

The vision of the world's maritime axis, which is the mainstay of Jokowi's government, must be supported by geopolitical forces. The new map also becomes capital in supporting efforts to achieve that vision. The modernization of the Indonesian Navy's equipment as a guardian of water sovereignty must also be prioritized. The next president’s geopolitical vision must not be merely lip service for momentary political gain.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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