South China Sea conflict a real threat to Indonesia

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 in the South China Sea.

Indonesia has been warned that the territorial conflict over the South China Sea is a real threat that will sooner or later impact this country.

Chief of the Sea Security Coordinating Agency, Vice Admiral Desi Albert Mamahit, conveyed the warning during the opening session of a focus group discussion on maritime security early warning systems held in Batam, the Riau Islands province, earlier this month.

He said that the Indonesian waters around the Natuna Islands (Kepri) regency were not actually inside in the disputed territory, but they were very close to the area and China had not yet clarified whatever claims it would make regarding Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (ZEE) around them.

"This is clearly a real threat for Indonesia," said Desi, who is also rector of the Defence University.

He said Indonesia would need to be prepared to deal with any moves made by any party involved in the dispute.

He said China had been basing its claims of ownership over the Paracell Islands and the Spratly Islands by saying the waters around them were traditional Chinese fishing areas, even though they were located thousands of kilometers from its mainland.

At the same time, a number of ASEAN member countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei Darussalam have been claiming ownership over the same territory.

"This becomes complicated as there are conflicts between fellow ASEAN member countries and China. It will be difficult to speak in one voice, although so far ASEAN solidarity has always been maintained," Desi said.

The forum also criticised the slow efforts to establish the Sea Security Agency (Bakamla), an organisation that would be supported by an early warning system and effective coordination, as mandated by the Presidential Decree No 39/2013.

The director of litigation affairs at the Directorate General of Law in the Law and Human Rights Ministry, Nasruddin, said the government had tried to establish Bakamla some 10 years ago, but to no avail.

"Bakamla is expected to be the coordinator of the 12 institutions that would have authority over the sea. However, it was never realised because there were some conflict of authority," Nasruddin said.

He said that efforts to revise Law No 6/1996 on waters that would have given a mandate for the establishment of Bakamla on June 18 of this year were already listed in the national legislation programme (Prolegnas). However, the 12 ministries and institutions concerned did not sign the revision.

Nasruddin said Bakamla's establishment was aimed at enhancing the operational efficiency of patrol ships and not at reducing the authority of the existing institutions.

Separately, the chairman of the University of Indonesia's Internal Relationship Post Graduate Program, Edy Prasetyono, blamed the failed establishment of Bakamla on the weak leadership of the government.

"The President should have used his sledgehammer to deal with the deadlock. Now let's wait and see what happens under the leadership of [president-elect Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo], who wants to make Indonesia into a world maritime axis," Edy said.