A patrol ship of the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, known as Bakamla. [Image: Wikimedia Commons / Indonesian Directorate General of Marine and Fisheries Resources Surveillance]

US Partners with Indonesia to Build Maritime Center in Strait of Malacca

Indonesia ASEAN Asia

On June 25, 2021, Song Kim, US Ambassador to Indonesia, led a groundbreaking ceremony for a $3.5 million maritime training center at Batam, Indonesia's Western Maritime Zone headquarters. The center strategically lies at the meeting point of the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea and will improve Indonesia's governance of its sovereign waters. US-Indonesia bilateral engagement promotes President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo's marine policy and seeks to strengthen Indonesian maritime capabilities.

Since the 2017 release of the Presidential Regulation on Indonesian Sea Policy, Jokowi has emphasized the Blue Economy initiative, a sustainable development model focused on coastal and marine ecosystems. The initiative recognizes the significant role of aquaculture in Indonesian affairs; in 2020, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization ranked Indonesia the world's second-largest producer of marine products. Oceans are central to Indonesia’s prosperity, producing over 7 million jobs, a fishery sector worth $27 billion, and more than half of the country’s animal-based protein. The proprietary claim over aquacultural resources necessitates Indonesia's response to nontraditional maritime security issues such as littering, piracy, human trafficking, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

In recent years, the Strait of Malacca, among the world's narrowest maritime chokepoints, caused Indonesian waters to become a prime target for armed robbery at sea. Indonesia was the second-most targeted country for actual and attempted piracy attacks in 2020. In January 2020 alone, 63 trespassing vessels were spotted across 30 locations within Indonesian waters. Regionally, ASEAN waters have been plagued by trespassing vessels that also engage in human trafficking, IUU fishing, and labor abuses against fishers. In an attempt to combat overfishing, Indonesia has taken a stern stance against IUU fishing, even sinking vessels engaged in the practice.

However, Indonesia needs additional tools to improve intelligence and protect coastal economies. Indonesia’s array of maritime reform efforts reflects the desire to strengthen maritime policy—the government currently has six maritime law enforcement institutions and 12 laws regulating authority at sea. However, further clarification on the division of functions of at-sea institutions is needed. For this reason, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, also known as Bakamla, will directly administer the new center and use it for training, education, and naval supervision. The facility will bolster the protection of western sea resources by improving early warning systems, rapid response capabilities, and interagency coordination. Managing marine resources, strengthening maritime diplomacy and defense capabilities, and improving inter-island connectivity throughout the archipelago will strengthen Indonesia’s ability to meaningfully contribute to ASEAN dialogues on maritime security.

At the center’s groundbreaking ceremony, Ambassador Kim noted that the United States has provided resources to Jakarta since 2014 "to [support] Indonesia's leading role in advancing regional peace and security by countering domestic and transnational crime.” Furthermore, in anticipation of the building of the maritime center, the US Coast Guard and Bakamla conducted a joint exercise at Batam in 2019. US-Indonesia maritime engagement improves Indonesia’s sovereignty and security at sea, and the center will provide a prime locale for such collaboration.

Sophie Glenn is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is an undergraduate student at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service concentrating in Regional and Comparative Studies—Southeast Asia.