The Indonesian Military (TNI) recently launched a joint operation to improve Indonesia-Malaysia maritime border security, combining the Navy and Air Force to respond to threats in the disputed Ambalat waters.
Operation Garda Wibawa 14 involves 1,200 military personnel from both the Indonesian Navy and Air Force — with the Army providing complementary assistance — led by joint task force commander Rear Adm. Agung Pramono, who is currently the commander of the Eastern Region Naval Base.
TNI commander Gen. Moeldoko said in a recent visit to Ambalat that he hoped the operation would be able to quell violations perpetrated along the country’s maritime border with Malaysia more effectively. He also said the operation was a model for a territorial security joint command that would be introduced later this year.
The launch of the operation a year after the military chief took up his post raised the question of whether there had been an increased level of threats in the Ambalat waters, which have been disputed by Malaysia and Indonesia for nearly 30 years.
The Ambalat sea block is located in the Celebes Sea, off the coast of East Kalimantan and southeast of the Malaysian state of Sabah. About 15,235 square kilometers, the block has been contested because of its high potential of energy reserves. According to one estimate, just one of the nine points in Ambalat contains as much as 764 million barrels of oil and 1.4 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The dispute over the Ambalat stretch of the Sulawesi Sea emerged in 1979 after Malaysia published a map showing its continental and maritime borders unilaterally, with the inclusion of the Ambalat sea block as part of its territory. The map was rejected by both Indonesia and Singapore.
The issue has drawn more public attention since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague awarded the Sipadan and Ligitan islands to Malaysia in 2002. Although the ICJ’s decision had no bearing on Indonesia and Malaysia’s maritime dispute in the Sulawesi Sea, Jakarta has since removed Sipadan and Ligitan as its base points, redrawing the baselines from the eastern shore of the Sebatik Islands to Karang Unarang and three other points. Consequently, the Ambalat block is no longer entirely inside Indonesian terriotrial waters, leaving a large chunk of the sea as “grey territory”.
Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia are in bilateral negotiations to determine the maritime borders of the two countries, a complex process that might take as long as 30 years.
Meanwhile, the unilateral claim continues to cause a number of border tensions, including the detention of Indonesian workers at Karang Unarang, and the driving away of Indonesian fishermen from Ambalat by Malaysian authorities. Tensions reached a high point a few years ago involving the two countries’ warships and patrol ships.
Most certainly the maritime dispute is loaded with strategic economic interests. Malaysia has awarded concessions to petroleum companies Shell and Petronas, while Indonesia has permitted ENI and Unocal to exploit parts of the block.
While there have been no heightened threats to the region in recent times, the latest military joint operation addresses the need to increase the effectiveness of maritime border security.
Previously, all military operations and exercises on maritime borders were conducted partially, slowing down the spread of information and hampering the military response to security challenges
Integrating the Navy and Air Force to secure the Indonesia-Malaysia sea borders shortens the chain of command, making responses faster and more accurate.
Under the new structure, when a breach to the maritime border or airspace is detected, Operation Garda Wibawa’s commander can mobilize a swift response from several naval and air force bases, including the Air Surveillance Squadrons, as well Marine Corps units, TNI warships and the intelligence task force from the Mulawarman Territorial Command.
More importantly, the joint operation will serve as a model for future joint commands for territorial defense that will integrate the regional resources of the Army, Navy and Air Force at locations strategic to maintaining Indonesia’s territorial integrity. These joint commands will be located in Aceh, Natuna in Riau Islands, Papua and Atambua in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT).
Operation Garda Wibawa shows the TNI’s continuing shift of priorities and perceived threats. Even as the military remains focused on internal security challenges, there is a greater perception of the need to strengthen its littoral approaches.
The TNI has long been preoccupied with domestic security, although three-quarters of its territory comprises water. In addition, as it continues to battle internal conflicts and insurgency threats, particularly in Papua, it also faces a host of maritime security challenges in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, from illegal fishing, piracy and people smuggling to drug trafficking. Frequent natural disasters also force the TNI to strengthen its capabilities for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
For the next 10 years, the TNI plans to invest in maritime and air combat capabilities, replacing its aging Cold War-era military defense system, by developing a strong green-water naval force and acquiring more sophisticated equipment for air combat and tactical air lifts.
The shift to a larger concern in coastal defense and littoral warfare is also reflected in Moeldoko’s public stance on regional security issues. He has repeatedly cited his concerns over a potential arms race among Southeast Asian countries and between major powers, as well as China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is located very close to the Natuna Islands.
A modern and professional TNI will project Indonesia’s ability to protect its vast waters and territorial integrity, and the military chief has proven he is committed to the goal. Let’s hope the new Indonesian government will honor this commitment, too.
The writer is a columnist and is now working on a book on the Indonesian elections. She took part in the recent visit of TNI commander Gen. Moeldoko to Ambalat.
Border operation signals TNI"s shift to maritime