When Indonesia's new president Jokowi pledged to strengthen the nation's focus on maritime affairs in his inaugural address in October last year, he could not have anticipated that the first test at sea would come from a disaster involving an aircraft. Efforts are ongoing to retrieve the wreckage of AirAsia flight QZ8501, which crashed into the Java Sea on 28 December on its way from Surabaya to Singapore, leaving no known survivors among its 162 passengers.
So far, the search for QZ8501 has revealed two things about Jokowi's plans for a maritime turn for Indonesia: firstly, the capabilities and limitations of the Indonesian navy, and secondly, the immense interest from regional neighbours and world powers in Indonesia's maritime activities.
Faced with tragedy, Jokowi has been praised for showing confidence as a leader and coordinating a swift and effective response. In just over two weeks, search-and-rescue efforts have uncovered the aircraft's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder, which are expected to provide essential evidence on the cause of the crash. The discovery of the fuselage of the aircraft last Wednesday is also hoped to signal that the bodies of all victims can now be accounted for.
But the national response has also shown the limitations of the Indonesian navy and other elements of the armed forces.
TNI Commander General Moeldoko has ensured that the armed forces as a whole have been credited with the success of the recovery mission, and not just the National Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas). Last week, Moeldoko personally flew by helicopter to a naval search vessel to collect the recovered flight data recorder, a move that was criticised as unnecessary by members of Jokowi's opposition, but was no doubt intended to emphasise his vision of the TNI becoming a leader in military cooperation in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian navy has been reportedly pushed to its limits by deploying all of its most sophisticated technology to join the search, while at the same time trying to maintain its regular patrol duties across the archipelago. Weaknesses have also been observed in the navy's ability to conduct searches at sea, including nighttime, aerial and underwater searches, which required international assistance. All passengers onboard flight QZ8501 were Indonesian citizens, save for seven foreign nationals from South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Britain and France. But offers of help have also come from the US, China, Russia, India and Australia. Humanitarian interests aside, big foreign powers appear to have also taken the opportunity to make a statement regarding their interest in Indonesia's maritime turn.
The US made a show of friendly force by deploying technologically advanced vessels and underwater sonar expertise. Russia, as a major supplier of military equipment to Indonesia, sent two aircraft and 22 divers to join the search. China sent a naval jet and a air force vessel, joining regional neighbours such as Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and others in an international hunt involving dozens of air and sea vessels.
Aside from Jokowi's inaugural speech, which was littered with nautical vocabulary — the new president described himself as the 'captain of a ship' and urged Indonesians to 'get on board the ship of the Republic of Indonesia and sail towards a Great Indonesia' — there is yet little detail on Jokowi's vision for a maritime-focused Indonesia. A report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sheds some light on the president's ambition for Indonesia to become a 'global maritime nexus', involving a renewed focus on the culture, industry, economy, diplomacy and defence of Indonesia's sizable maritime territory.
Judging from the AirAsia response, Indonesia will need to scale up the capabilities of its navy to meet Jokowi's maritime goals. But whatever this maritime turn will entail, it appears that world powers and neighbours in the Asia Pacific are paying attention.