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Nusantara can unlock Indonesia’s maritime potential

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As the dust settles over the 2024 Indonesian general election, Prabowo Subianto and Gibran Rakabuming Raka have claimed victory as the next president and vice president. The former three-star general and the son of the incumbent president have promised to continue President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s ambitious economic development and legacy infrastructure projects, including moving the administrative capital from Jakarta to Ibu Kota Nusantara (IKN) in East Kalimantan.

This relocation project is not just a political move to secure the legacy of President Jokowi. With some strategic consideration, Prabowo could turn the new capital city and its surrounding maritime domain into a new regional — and even global — maritime hub. The government is planning to build two ports within the vicinity of IKN, Kuala Samboja and Marangkayu, which will support the development of logistics and industries around the area.

To realise IKN’s potential, Indonesia must present a balanced approach in both its maritime security and economic policies, expanding connectivity beyond its archipelago and seizing regional opportunities.

Throughout the next five years of his presidency, Prabowo is expected to project Indonesia’s political standing and influence on regional and global issues. He will likely do this through a combination of foreign policy and defence diplomacy, drawing on his experience as Minister of Defense.

Coming from a military background, Prabowo brings with him a realist take on foreign policy and security issues. Unlike the other two presidential candidates, Prabowo’s campaign rhetoric and official vision statement emphasise maritime affairs, but with an inward-looking focus. These have included calls for food self-sufficiency through the development of aquaculture and deep-sea fishing, empowering domestic maritime logistics through improved port infrastructure, expanding maritime transport links and investing in maritime human resources. All these statements rest upon the new capital city’s establishment as the future centre of growth outside of Java.

Prabowo’s call to reinforce Indonesian sovereignty as a unitary state is distinctive. His take on the South China Sea issue in the third presidential candidate debate on 7 January 2024 did not offer a strategy on how Indonesia could maintain peace and stability in the area. Instead, Prabowo stressed that Indonesia must actively build a strong maritime capacity to defend against future issues that may arise across the archipelagic domain.

A stronger defence and security posture would benefit the future capital given its proximity to Indonesia’s neighbours, as well as the second archipelagic sea lane — one of three archipelagic sea lanes designated for international maritime navigation. At its southern end, the sea lane connects with the Indian Ocean through the Lombok Strait, while its northern end connects to the Sulu Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is a very strategic maritime sea lane as it serves as an alternative route for ships that are too big to pass through the Strait of Malacca.

Security concerns towards the sea lane once posed by militant groups, such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, have been largely resolved. Since the signing of the 2017 Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement, trilateral maritime patrols in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have corresponded with a sharp drop in armed robberies, kidnappings and maritime terrorism cases. This practical cooperation showcases Indonesia’s commitment to safeguarding important sea lines of communication. Indonesia has also enhanced the existing patrol mechanism by incorporating drone and satellite systems to increase surveillance capability.

Both Prabowo and Gibran have voiced their support for continuing the new capital city project. Gibran has expressed his commitment to driving Indonesia’s economic transformation by advancing state-of-the-art technology to reinforce the nation’s micro, small and medium enterprises. The duo has pledged to turn IKN into a ‘super-hub’ to tap into the digital ecosystem for Indonesia’s economic progress.

This rhetoric is very similar to that of President Jokowi, whose legacy lies in Indonesia’s economic and infrastructure development to connect the archipelago. But Prabowo will likely brandish his mark on IKN by driving progress on the surrounding region to prop up the capital city’s economy. There has already been progress with the development in Balikpapan which would serve as IKN’s main commercial driver given its proximity to the new capital, as well as the Makassar New Port project, slated to be the biggest commercial port in eastern Indonesia.

The establishment of IKN is not only an attempt to shift the administrative capital from Java to Kalimantan. A developed IKN region will boost the commercial traffic that runs through the second archipelagic sea lane, increasing economic interest in eastern Indonesia and providing an alternative route that connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Should the new president be successfully seize this opportunity, a global maritime hub could emerge right in the middle of the Indo-Pacific.

Gilang Kembara is Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

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The post Nusantara can unlock Indonesia’s maritime potential first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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