Asia in Review Archive 2021


Date of AiR edition

News summary

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Bakamla armed against rising tensions in the South China Sea

(nd) Last month, the civilian maritime force, Bakamla, in the northern Natuna Island armed its vessels with machine guns due to recurringly intruding vessels from China and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not consider itself as a claimant sate in the South China Sea, China’s historic fishing right claims overlap with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The move is delicate due to its possible effect on bilateral relations. China is Indonesia’s largest trade partner, with a trade volume of US$79.4 billion in 2019. With the efforts to curb the Covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia is dependent on vaccination, with 1.2 million doses of Sinovac having arrived in early December.

Bakamla was authorized last summer to procure weapons, and ships were fitted with remote-controlled Stabilised Naval Gun Systems in December. This was also in response to an increase in calls from parliament and the public, in an effort to curb anti-China groups. Analyst therefore did not interpret the latest move as a toughening of Indonesia’s position but rather an effort to prevent an escalation. The same logic applies to Vietnamese fishing boats, due to an unresolved overlap of the respective EEZ claims. While an increase in arms might serve as a deterrence, the numbers of ships are still outweighed by those of the Chinese coastguard, which is why Bakamla still relies on larger ships of the Indonesian Navy.

Experts expect Chinese naval actions to be more focused on the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam this year, while it usually carefully balanced its moves to not be putting pressure on all claimant countries at the same time, possibly to avoid a multilateral reaction. [South China Morning Post]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Underwater vehicle Chinese-made

(nd) The autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) that was found off South Sulawesi last month, which sparked concerns of a security breach or espionage attempt, was made in China. The location is strategic due to its sea lanes used for trade, and the resource-rich waters are rich fishing grounds and energy reserves alike. Due to the rising tensions in the South China Sea, security officials have voiced suspicion about Chinese maritime activities. Still, the location of origin is unclear and no country had claimed the vehicle.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), marine scientific research in a country’s exclusive economic zone should only be conducted with the consent of the respective state. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Challenges for the dependency on coal industry

(nd) As a repercussion of Covid-19, there was a lower demand for fossil fuels, including coal, consumption of which is expected to fall by 8% this year. Coal is Indonesia’s country’s largest export commodity, and has seen demand drops both in export and domestic markets, fueling existing concerns around overcapacity.

As a solution to at least create local demand, the government aims to gasify coal, to turn solid coal into the liquid fuels methanol and dimethyl ether (DME) that can replace imported liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Environmental and climate issues remain with this coal-based technology, which questions the project’s economic viability. Despite this criticism, the project is already far along, with an estimated commencement date of 2023/2024.

Most importantly, the passage of the highly controversial omnibus bill will make extraction more favorable by lowering requirements for environmental impact assessments, which will save costs. In order to fulfill the commitment to the Paris agreement, the discussion of new renewable energy focuses on coal gasification and nuclear, and not on the development of wind and solar.

Analysts warn that by depending even more on coal extraction, Indonesia could get stuck economically without a diversified energy portfolio. The decrease in coal demand shall be used as a moment to exit toward a more decentralized, sustainable energy future. Not only neighboring countries India, China, Vietnam, or Thailand shifted toward renewables. [The News Lens]

Also, with respect to oil and gas, the industry’s big players, like Chevron and perhaps ExxonMobil, as well as major oil companies BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Total, heading for such a shift and scaled back investment in traditional oil and gas projects. 

Of Indonesia’s 128 geological basins, half have been explored, but foreign investment is at its lowest-ever point. According to experts, its best bets is deep-water exploration in prospective areas like offshore northern Sumatra, northern Papua and the Makassar Strait. In the Andaman Sea, northwest of Aceh, Abu Dhabi-based Mubadala Petroleum, Spain’s Repsol, BP and Malaysian state oil company Petronas invested in four adjacent blocks all under active exploration at depths of 1,000-1,500 meters. 

For such projects, international expertise and funding was necessary, which is hindered by risk-averse domestic and state-owned companies and a bureaucracy, aiming at nationalizing the resources, compelling firms to buy overpriced Indonesian goods and service. Timing of approval of an operation is another issue for investors. According to analysts, Indonesia shall therefore implement incentives and measures to make such operation more attractive, otherwise its bargaining power towards foreign investors will increasingly weaken. [Asia Times]

12 January 2021

Indonesia: Preliminary report of probe in FPI member killing

(nd) Following the killing of six members of the politically influential Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) members by police officers last December, a report of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) found that only two were gunned down during an exchange of fire, but four others were detained and later shot, reinforcing claims of “extra-judicial killings” made earlier by the FPI. Police, however, argued, that one of the four detainees tried to seize an officer’s weapon during a change of vehicle which triggered a scuffle that ended in the shooting at close range. 

As nominal head of the National Police, president Joko Widodo now has to decide whether there will be a full-scale investigation in the case. Since there are still gaps in the report, it is expected that Komnas HAM will be tasked with forming an independent team of investigators. [Asia Times]

5 January 2021

ASEAN countries, US to seek last minute deals

(nd) Only weeks before the official end of the Trump administration, countries across Southeast Asia seem to pursue last minute security and economic agreements with the US in light of president Donald Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. During the Trump presidency, trade with the US increased despite of his relative lack of interest in the region, while the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is widely associated with a stricter emphasis on human rights and democratic values. In early December, the Philippines received $29 million in military equipment during a visit, with an announcement of additional $18 million worth of military equipment and training.

For Indonesia’s planned sovereign wealth fund, the US International Development Finance Corp. signed a letter of interest for a $2 billion as one of the first countries to sign up, with an aimed estimated total of about $15 billion from around the world. The US also extend tariff exemptions for Indonesia, possibly with an eye on cooperation against Chinese maritime actions in the South China Sea. Due to its geographic position, the region will play a pivotal role in geopolitics in the coming years, to stand strong against Chinese aggression and growing influence, but still, in the region, democratic governance is deteriorating, and left unaddressed.

Economically, the region has benefitted from the Trump administration, with ASEAN having received about $24.5 billion in direct investment from the US in 2019, with exports from Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia on the rise since 2017. Additionally, US-based power company AES announced to join a development project for a liquefied natural gas terminal in Vietnam, which also agreed to import up to $500 million in American pork over the next three years. This was seen as a reaction to mitigate the trade imbalance, still US accused Vietnam of currency manipulation after. [Nikkei Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia, Australia, to ensure non-violence of released cleric

(nd) After the release of Abu Bakar Bashir, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs urged Indonesia to make sure the 82-year-old will not incite further violence. The radical cleric is the suspected mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, killing 200 people including many Australian nationals, which he denied. He was jailed in 2011 for entertaining links to militant training camps in the Indonesian province of Aceh and considered the spiritual leader of the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network. The JI leader was arrest last December. [See also AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3][Channel News Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Unmarked water drone discovered

(nd) Following the discovery of an unmarked underwater surveillance drone, the Indonesian Navy is investigating its country of origin. The drone was found in Indonesia’s waters off South Sulawesi province in December. The type of underwater drone can be used for both surveillance in the fishing and oil industries and also for military purposes. Since its discovery, discussions about espionage were sparked on social media, referring to its similarity with Chinese vehicles called Sea Wing found in 2019 off Riau Islands and East Java last year.

The location is noteworthy according to analysts, since it was found in a crucial maritime route connecting the disputed South China Sea to Darwin, the northernmost Australian city. Indonesia does not regard itself as claimant state in the dispute over the South China Sea, but China claims rights to areas overlapping with Indonesia’ exclusive economic zone. Currently, Indonesian law contains no regulations on unmanned underwater vehicles, with military observers now urging the government to draft a new legislation. [Radio Free Asia]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Chemical castration for convicted child molesters

(nd) A new regulation enacted by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo foresees chemical castration with a duration of up to two years as an additional punishment for convicted child molesters. The crime must have involved more than one victim and resulted in severe injury. Child molestation is punishable by up to nine years in prison under Indonesia’s criminal code (KUHP).

According to the Women Empowerment and Children Protection Ministry 5,640 child sexual abuse cases have been recorded in 2020. [Jakarta Globe]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: Influential Islamic clerical body supports vaccinations

(nd) The influential Islamic clerical body Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a recommendation allowing the use of vaccines, paving the way for the country’s fight to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. Vaccines are traditionally banned under Islamic law, now a halal certificate developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech will be issued to counter the surge of misinformation in social media. In November, MUI elected more moderate leaders, fueling optimism for the 90% Muslim population. [South China Morning Post] [See also AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

5 January 2021

Indonesia: FPI banned

(nd) Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD last week announced that the controversial, but politically influential, hardline group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has been banned on grounds of vigilantism and links to terrorism. Mahfud added that the FPI was officially disbanded in June 2019 for failing to renew its permit as an officially registered mass organization, but continued unlawful activities since then. Last week’s ban was co-signed by the Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly, Communications Minister Johnny Plate, Attorney-General Burhanuddin and police chief Idham Azis, as well as by the director of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) director, reflecting the government’s determination to link the FPI to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other active terrorist groups.

The ban comes nearly three weeks after FPI leader Rizieq Shihab was arrested for breaching coronavirus rules. Upon his return in October, 50,000 supporters greeted Shihab at the airport, triggering the first of several violations against the laws to curb the Covid-19 spread, upsetting authorities, including President Joko Widodo, which led to the sacking of the police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java. Shihab’s arrest was accompanied by the still-investigated killing of six of his bodyguards by police forces on a highway. 

Shihab seems to be unimpressed by those steps, announcing that he was embarking on a “moral revolution” and warning that religion and religious leaders are not to be alienated from politics and the state.

The move to ban the party was criticized, with analysts saying that another outlet will be found and the ban “feeds the narrative that the government is against Islam.” Other analysts said it could revive the so-called 212 Movement, a coalition of conservative Muslim groups, which were responsible for the 2017 downfall of Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama on blasphemy charges.  [Asia Times] [Aljazeera]