Tensions in North Natuna Sea : A Glance at Bakamla Capabilities

Indonesia and China recently witnessed tensions in North Natuna Sea.These were triggered by the Chinese Coast Guard vessel after it conducted maneuvers in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Indonesia responded by deploying the Bakamla (Badan Keamanan Laut), the national Maritime Security Agency, and a patrol boat was assigned to operate in the vicinity of the Chinese vessel.

Indonesian media hailed Bakamla and blamed China for the tensions. However, Hikmahanto Juwana, a renowned professor of International Law at the University of Indonesia, has reportedly said that the Chinese deployment in North Natuna Sea was in line with the 1982 UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He argued that Bakamla’s reaction to the Chinese maneuver in the sea is grossly over-reactive given that the Chinese patrol vessel was basically entering the EEZ, which under the UNCLOS is high seas wherein ships enjoy freedom of navigation. Additionally, it does not challenge the sovereignty to a coastal state.

This is not the first time that tension involving coast guards from both sides have taken place at the same location. Although each case since 2016 has been differentin character, the reponse from Indonesian side has been assessed as over-reactive and may have been to suffice domestic nationalism. It also raises an important question about Bakamla’s understanding and interpretation of the 1982 UNCLOS.

Be that as it may, Bakamla is low on capabilities and this deficit stems from its controversial institutional background. The agency was hurriedly set up during the last stages of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration after its requirement was deliberated in the House of Representatives for over two years. That time it was hailed by the local maritime communities as the panacea for Indonesia’s complicated, inefficient and shipping players-burdening maritime security management.

Bakamla was set to conduct coast guard tasks like law enforcement at sea, maritime search and rescue operations and others as stipulated in Law No. 32/2014 on Maritime Affairs. This legal basis is weak because in Indonesia legal system every law regulates a certain sector with all its ramification. Bakamla legal foundation is outside the remit of the criteria and its designation (maritime affairs) is completely generic. Subsequently, President Joko Widodo issued Presidential Regulation No. 178/2014 to make Bakmala operational on December 13, 2014.

In the last six years, the agency has submitted a bill on Maritime Security to the Parliament but did not get traction from the House of Representative although it is considered as one of top priority bills to be discussed immediately. Furthermore, two senior ministers even disclosed that the government planned to lodge an omnibus law to empower Bakamla; unfortunately, these agendas are postponed.

Although its legal status is far from perfect for a maritime security and safety institution, Bakamla nevertheless is acquiring assets (patrol boats, bases/command centers). According to the Agency’s white paper, it currently manages three maritime zones with headquarters in Ambon and Manado of North Sulawesi province. These offices are supported by 20 bases –both stationary and mobile– established across the archipelago. All of the facilities are equipped with electronic devices to read distress signal through global maritime distress safety system/GMDSS and ship identification information via automatic identification system/AIS. Other vessel tracking systems are also in place.

Bakamla also operates two satellite ground stations in Bangka Belitung and Bitung (North Sulawesi province) to provide them with maritime aerial surveillance. There are plans to develop several similar facilities but their development had stopped due to issues concerning procurement practices. The Agency maintains scores of patrol boats to conduct interception of which the biggest one is KN Tanjung Datu 1101 which is home-ported in Batam, Riau Island province. The vessel is also deployed for maritime diplomacy and had conducted joint exercise with the Indian Coast Guard.

While the government has decided to make investments in building a good force structure for the Agency, Bakamla’s main drawback is human capital. Since its establishment, the Agency has had a mix of staff drawn from various government agencies such as Indonesia Navy (TNI AL), Office of General Attorney, National Police among others. Their training/education also vary with minimum familiarity on the existing international maritime regulations. Bakamla has plans to recruit fresh staff and establish a dedicated academy.

The biggest slice of Bakamla’s personnel are from the TNI (AL) who are seconded to itbut they are freely assigned back to their headquarters mostly after they get a higher rank in the agency. Meanwhile, the head of Bakamla is always an active flag officer of TNI (AL) who is about to retire or being promoted as TNI (AL) chief of staff. On the other hand, by law Bakamla is a civilian body but so far no civilian man/woman appointed as its head.

There are several operational and administrative weaknesses in the Bakmala and North Natuna Sea could see more tensions in the future. Therefore a more robust and clear understanding of international maritime law becomes increasingly important for maritime law enforcement agencies.

It will be useful for Bakamla to explore a dialogue with the Indian Coast Guard with whom it has a MoU on ‘Maritime Safety and Security’ to understand best practices. After all the Indian Coast Guard set up in 1978 with human and material resources from the Indian Navy and had faced similar challenges while growing up to be a force of over 150 vessels and 60 aircraft.

Mr. Siswanto Rusdi is Director of the National Maritime Institute (NAMARIN), an independent maritime think tank in Jakarta.

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