JAKARTA • Container ships dot the horizon off the coast of Jakarta, as cranes and labourers work on an ambitious, economy-boosting project to expand the port network in the world's largest archipelago nation.
New Priok will be Indonesia's biggest port once completed, and is one of 24 ports being planned in a bid to overhaul maritime connections in the country, which has more than 17,000 islands.
President Joko Widodo is leading efforts to improve Indonesia's dilapidated maritime infrastructure, as ships face lengthy delays before berthing and goods can get stuck for days as they run a gauntlet of government agency checks.
"This is no longer a wish, but a necessity," Mr Joko recently said of improving ports after Indonesia's growth hit a six-year low of 4.7 per cent in the first quarter.
The port plan is part of a broader scheme to improve infrastructure, from potholed roads to creaking train lines, as the country seeks to lure foreign investors and pull out of a long slowdown, driven by falling prices, of its key commodity exports. Its infrastructure is so woeful that it is cheaper to transport goods from China to the country's most populous island of Java than to get them from the Indonesian part of Borneo, which is far closer, according to the World Bank.
Mr Joko, a former furniture exporter who knows well the problems of the country's ports, is taking a personal interest in the project, but it faces formidable challenges. There are growing doubts his administration, which has been criticised over its failure to kickstart major infrastructure projects, can push through the plans due to a lack of organisation and a dysfunctional bureaucracy.
On a recent visit to Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, which handles much of Indonesia's international trade, Mr Joko's frustration at the slow progress was clear, when he delivered a tirade over its failure to substantially cut the time it takes goods to move through the facility.
The target date to complete all the ports is 2019. But even if the target is met, experts say it will not solve the problem of red tape and graft that slows down processing of goods.
The Jakarta project is one of five planned deep-sea ports, which can receive large cargo ships that will be dotted across the archipelago.
Tanjung Priok, currently Indonesia's biggest port, handles 6.5 million containers a year.
To its east, the first stage of New Priok is taking shape.
Trial operations for the first stage are due to begin later this year, but the entire project is not expected to be completed for some years.
The new port, which will share services with Tanjung Priok and whose first phase alone is expected to cost around US$4.5 billion (S$6.2 billion), will have the capacity to handle 12.5 million containers of international freight a year.
Work has already started this year on ports in Kuala Tanjung in Sumatra and in Makassar on Central Sulawesi island.
Indonesia faces a long road in catching up with other Asian countries, such as Malaysia, which have more modern port facilities. "We are still behind our neighbours, that is for sure," said Mr Richard Lino, president director of state-owned port operator Pelindo II, which is developing the New Priok port. "It is a very big challenge."