Airspace spat shows Indonesia's newfound foreign policy muscle

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Indonesia is pushing to reclaim airspace within five years in a sensitive military area that’s currently controlled by Singapore, as President Joko Widodo takes a more assertive approach to foreign policy.
The airspace over the Riau and Natuna islands near Singapore has been administered by the city-state since 1946 as a postwar holdover and is a corridor for flights in and out of Changi Airport, one of Asia’s busiest for international flights. Singapore says the arrangement provides effective air traffic control services, and is not about sovereignty.
“Of course it’s related to sovereignty,” Indonesia Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in an interview on Tuesday in Jakarta. “They have no right to decline, it is Indonesia’s right.”
The stance reflects Indonesia’s efforts to step up control of the borders of the world’s largest archipelago, which stretches from maritime boundaries with India in the west to Australia in the east. Widodo’s government has developed the coast guard, blown up illegal fishing vessels and deployed warships in the gas-rich waters around Natuna in response to China’s growing military presence in the disputed South China Sea.
Jusuf Kalla.
Lacking a majority in parliament, Widodo, known as Jokowi, has shored up his political support with key posts for ex-army men such as government security chief Luhut Panjaitan, and moved away from his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s policy of “a million friends and zero enemies”. Jokowi envisages a “maritime axis” policy to improve shipping and trade between the country’s 17,000 islands.
He’s also shown an inclination to take a stronger stance on territorial matters, even withbiggest trading partner China, which is looking at Indonesia as an investment destination in order to build infrastructure for a maritime trading route to Europe.
In a speech to leaders of developing nations in Indonesia in April, Jokowi called for a new international economic order that is better at including emerging countries. He suggested “a new global financial architecture in order to avoid the domination of certain groups of countries.”
“The Indonesian air force wants to control their own space,” said Wisnu Darjono, a director at the state air navigation agency. Singapore took control when Indonesia lacked the ability “but now our facilities are almost equal with Singapore. We are ready to control that area.”
Indonesia informed Singapore of its intentions during a visit to Jakarta last month by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. The administration of the so-called Flight Information Region is a complex issue under the ambit of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, Teo told Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi during the visit, according to Singapore’s foreign ministry.
“There are many instances where the territorial airspace of a country is managed by the air traffic authorities in another,” the ministry said on its website. “Indonesia also provides air traffic services in airspace which belongs to other countries.”
Jokowi is seeking to increase regulation of the aviation sector after a spate of accidents, including at least three deadly crashes this year and last December’s crash of an AirAsia Bhd. plane carrying 162 people. A probe of that disaster cited a technical fault in the Airbus Group SE A320 plane and pilot errors, and recommended improved training, the final report showed this week.
“The airspace issue is the last thing that Indonesia should be worried about,” said Paul Rowland, an independent Jakarta-based political consultant. “It is not a sovereignty issue, but about technical capacity. It is not going to be solved by a war of words. Indonesia already has a shortage of controllers without taking on additional airspace.”
Indonesia plans to add 150 staff for air traffic control in the next two to three years at Batam and Tanjung Pinang in the Riau islands, and in Pontianak on the west of Borneo island near Natuna, said Darjono from the air navigation agency. Communications and navigation systems will be improved to meet traffic demand, he said.
The tail section of the Air Asia aircraft is loaded onto a truck. Photo: AFP.
In Natuna, Indonesia’s navy has deployed seven warships to guard the waters. Government security chief Luhut Panjaitan wrote in the Kompas newspaper in October that the country is considering using drones and submarines to strengthen its grip over the islands.
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways, based on a so-called nine dash line for which it won’t give precise coordinates. In passports issued in 2012, China’s line encroaches on the exclusive economic zone that Indonesia derives from the Natuna Islands. Indonesia hasn’t recognized the claim.
Kalla said China acknowledged the Natuna Islands belonged to Indonesia, but the “problem is with the South China Sea” and Indonesia is “worried” by China’s construction of military facilities on artificial islands in the area.
“We are not thinking to have a war with China, but a country must preserve its borders,” said Kalla, adding that the beef up in Natuna security also related to efforts against illegal fishing. Indonesia has no plan to bring the issue to an international court, and doesn’t believe Beijing would escalate military power in the sea for economic sake.
“The South China Sea has to be international waters,” Kalla said. “If it gets disrupted then the most affected would be China itself.”

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