Explaining Indonesia’s Under-balancing: The Case of the Modernisation of the Air Force and the Navy

Published date01 December 2021
Date01 December 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Explaining Indonesia’s
The Case of the
Modernisation of the
Air Force and the Navy
Iis Gindarsah1 and Adhi Priamarizki2
The current maritime challenges that Indonesia faced had not led to the
development of the navy and air force. While theories of neoclassical realism
highlighted the importance of domestic factors when determining responses at
the strategic level, inefficiencies within the state bureaucracy had often been the
bane of prudent policies. Our article attempts to engage with the neorealist
concept of under-balancing to look at the reasons why there is stagnation in
Indonesia’s naval and air force development. The proponents of under-balancing
blamed inefficient bureaucracy as the cause of the issue. Our study on Indonesia’s
naval and air force development indicated that inefficient bureaucracy was
not the only driver of under-balancing. Looking at the agenda of naval and air
force modernisation, this research argues the lack of commitment from the
government, limited economic sources and the different modernisation priorities
at the military unit level that had greatly contributed to the mismatch between
systemic pressure and the response, in this case through naval and air force
development, against it.
Under-balancing, global maritime fulcrum, Indonesian armed forces, arms
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
8(3) 391–412, 2021
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970211039645
1 Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies
(CSIS), Jakarta, Indonesia.
2 Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological
University, Singapore.
Corresponding author:
Iis Gindarsah, Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and Interna-
tional Studies (CSIS), Pakarti Centre Building, Jl. Tanah Abang 3 No. 23-27, Jakarta 10160, Indonesia
E-mail: ige@lab45.id and
392 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 8(3)
At the 2014 East Asia Summit, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) outlined his
conception of a ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF)’. This new concept fundamentally
represents a national vision to rebuild the country’s archipelagic culture, while
developing itself as a maritime power. Controlling some of the strategic sea lanes
for global commerce, the administration in Jakarta seeks to play a central role in
two vast maritime regions—the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Nonetheless, Indonesia is likely to face a complex nexus of traditional and
non-traditional maritime security issues in the future. China’s assertiveness in the
South China Sea hints at potential conflict in the region. Moreover, maritime
incursions by Chinese vessels into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone
(EEZ) occurred several times, the latest being September 2020. While maritime
boundaries are highly contested, issues of illegal fishing and maritime piracy have
overlapped with a rising demand for energy and marine resources. Recent events
had also demonstrated that refugees from conflict-torn countries could strain
bilateral relations and exacerbate regional vulnerabilities due to illegal migration
and organised crimes. Furthermore, the sudden increase of maritime disputes and
security concerns, particularly kidnappings for ransom attacks, in Sulu-Celebes
Sea in 2016, due to the rise of terrorist networks in the domain triggered serious
concerns for Indonesia.1
These regional trends should have provided compelling reasons for Indonesia
to exponentially increase its ability to safeguard its maritime terrain, particularly
through the development of the navy and air force. Despite the grand nature of the
concept, the GMF drew heavy criticisms for failing to deliver the expected
outcomes, particularly in the defence and security realms (Laksmana, 2019a). The
existence of the GMF doctrine did not automatically prioritise a strengthening
of the navy and air force. In fact, Indonesia’s military force structure enhancement
still placed a strong emphasis on the army.2 Such a circumstance certainly
generated doubts over the country’s ability to meet various maritime challenges.
While classical realism noted the zero-sum game nature of force development,
our empirical findings indicate that Indonesia’s naval and air force development
does not reflect such a path. Why did Indonesia’s naval and air force modernisation
fail to respond to the systemic pressure adequately? Employing the lenses of
under-balancing of neoclassical realism, our article aims to explain the gap
between mounting external maritime challenges and the response towards them.
Neoclassical realism postulated that systemic pressure alone is not enough to
drive a state’s behaviour. Domestic factors, in fact, serve as an intervening variable
between the systemic pressure and the output responses. Then, the next question
is—what are the domestic components that constituted under-balancing of
Indonesia’s naval and air force development?
In order to answer the aforementioned questions, our article dissects the role
and implementation of GMF in building maritime force and Indonesia’s naval and
air force modernisation agenda. We contend that the absence of strong commitment
has caused the GMF to do little in fostering maritime force build-up. The situation
was also exacerbated with stagnant economic development and the agenda of

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