COVID-19’s impact on Indonesia’s domestic and regional security

COVID-19 is putting Indonesia's domestic institutions and regional security defences to the test, writes Natalie Sambhi.

With over 1.8 million cases and nearly 50,000 deaths, Indonesia has been the Southeast Asian state hardest hit by covid-19. With the large scale rollout of the Chinese-made CoronaVac, Jakarta is counting on the vaccine to lift the economy out of recession and kickstart tourism in places like Bali. Besides the dire economic, health and social impacts, coronavirus has also had an ambivalent effect on both Indonesia’s domestic and regional security.

The first impact has been the military’s obvious presence in helping to manage the pandemic, from decision making, enforcing social distancing and distributing PPE. Head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, Lieutenant General Doni Monardo was also appointed to lead the COVID-19 taskforce. In late 2020 Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment and a former army general, was placed in charge of halting the spread of covid in nine provinces with the highest transmission rates.

Such appointments reinforce the perception that emergency responses require the discipline and firm hand of the military. It is also part of a broader trend of former generals in the Jokowi government and shapes longer term civil-military relations.

From a pragmatic standpoint, however, the military’s role is critical in managing the pandemic in a sprawling archipelago. Its territorial presence, designed to counter potential unrest in remote areas and build community ties, allows soldiers to respond quickly and efficiently to natural disasters, including pandemics.

In addition to the military, the police and intelligence agencies have also played an important part in enforcing social distancing and isolation regulations. For instance, authorities have used information security laws to crackdown on fake or hoax news.

However, there have been concerns that these kinds of practices have been extended to muzzling civil society groups critiquing or cracking down on protests against the president’s controversial Omnibus Law. Rights in digital space have declined last year, and news outlets who criticised the government’s handling of covid-19 have also been impacted. While COVID-19 is not the prime cause for this weakening, it has added pressure on democratic consolidation.

COVID-19 also complicates Indonesia’s regional relations. Beijing has been an important source of donated medical supplies. Indonesia was also the first country to give Sinovac’s CoronaVac the green light. However, lurking in the background of this diplomacy is China’s maritime intimidation of Indonesia, the most recent high profile case of which involved no less than 60 ships in Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in December 2019 and January 2020. Despite assistance during the pandemic and the need for continued infrastructure investment from Beijing, Indonesia has been willing to stand firm against similar actions in the region from China, issuing a note verbale in May 2020 affirming the latter’s nine-dash line territory claim lacked any legal basis.

With newly built facilities in the Spratly islands, China has been increasingly able to sustain ships further and further away from undisputed territory. How Indonesia juggles a domestic health crisis while managing rifts in ASEAN and holding back Chinese incursions is the fundamental challenge.

On the domestic security front, Australia must provide support to Indonesia in ways that recognise its limited influence in politics and society. This means supporting Indonesia’s security forces and agencies to carry out their duties in ways that don’t contradict the democratic practices that Indonesia itself values, such as freedom of the press, and maximising community support.

On the regional security front, one priority will be supporting Indonesia’s efforts to enforce international law in the South China Sea. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, a number of bilateral and multilateral exercises focussed on maritime defences went ahead last year. The key will be maintaining current engagement through virtual means or finding ways around that. In particular, exercises such as coordinated patrols which do not require contact between crews are critical in developing Australian and Indonesian navy personnel ties and improving communication.

Overall, Indonesia’s COVID-19 challenge is formidable. While relief is on the horizon, its domestic institutions and regional security defences are being put to the test. Whatever the case, Indonesia will need the support of its partners if it is to take its place as leader in the Indo-Pacific region.

Natalie Sambhi is Executive Director of Verve Research. This piece was first published in the La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 5 - Australia-Southeast Asia Relations: The post COVID-19 regional order.