Symbolism of blown-up fishing boats

Being a man of few words, President Joko Widodo preferred to demonstrate his country's determination to protect its territorial seas from poachers by deploying the Indonesian navy to round up illegal fishing vessels and sink a few of them using explosives. As symbolism goes, that will amply register Jakarta's concern over annual losses of 300 trillion rupiah (S$30 billion) as a result of persistent unauthorised fishing by foreigners in Indonesian waters.

However, the efficacy of the move is another matter, alongside the unintended hardship caused to locals. Monitoring a sprawling archipelago of 17,000 islands is hard enough but keeping track of foreign vessels is complicated by their use for fuel supplies, cold storage and the transportation of fish to ports, in support of the local fishing industry. Banning cold storage-equipped vessels could thus adversely affect Indonesian fishermen.

While such firm measures would scarcely represent gunboat diplomacy, what might set tongues wagging would be the new President's vision of Indonesia as a global maritime nexus and his administration's plan to boost defence spending to almost triple its current budget by 2019. How would this square with Indonesia's much-lauded benevolent leadership in regional affairs, nurtured by former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and ex-foreign minister Marty Natalegawa? This is a moment when President Jokowi would benefit from an eloquent point man to put the scope of Indonesia's nationalism in the proper perspective.

From a strategic angle, a progressive strengthening of the defence sector is to be expected as Indonesia lags behind neighbouring countries by a considerable margin. Maritime aspirations, too, must be seen in the context of the vast improvements that Indonesia needs to promote security and trade. Work ahead includes building dozens of new harbours, upgrading old ones, acquiring large vessels, modernising the fishing industry, and developing skills and systems to manage an efficient global maritime centre. Infrastructural developments call for much foreign investment - a point underscored by President Joko at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO conference in Beijing last month. All the more, it would be in Jakarta's interests to ensure diplomatic relations with countries in the region are safeguarded by not neglecting bilateral approaches to poaching issues and the detention of foreign boats, including those of Vietnam, Thailand and China. Such efforts would also be in step with Jakarta's avowed intention of continuing to be actively involved in the Asean community-building process, with an eye on the formation of the Asean Economic Community.