International relations, National security, South China Sea | Southeast Asia

21 December 2022

The appointment of Admiral Yudo Margono as joint armed forces chief may help the Indonesian military establish itself as a genuine maritime power, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

On 19 December, Admiral Yudo Margono was inaugurated as the next Chief of the National Armed Forces (TNI), replacing the retiring General Andhika Perkasa. The only candidate nominated by President Joko Widodo for the position, Admiral Margono will only be the third navy leader to serve as joint chief of the military.

The appointment of Admiral Margono, who had been Chief of Staff of the Navy since May 2020, is unsurprising. Early in his first term, President Widodo made the maritime domain a centrepiece of his foreign policy strategy, with a plan to turn Indonesia into a ’global maritime fulcrum’. Given this maritime focus, it’s logical that an admiral should lead Indonesia’s defence forces.

As Admiral Margono steps into the role, Indonesia’s military is facing a challenging geopolitical environment – with the maritime domain in particular becoming more contested.

The South China Sea will likely become his main challenge. This issue has been bubbling away through President Widodo’s nearly two terms as president, not only as a result of China’s intrusion in the North Natuna Sea, but because the various disputes have provoked powers from outside the region to build their presence in Southeast Asian maritime areas.

The 2021 announcement that Australia would acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new ‘AUKUS’ partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom is another significant maritime issue facing Indonesia. Indonesian officials went on record about their concerns around the potential impact of the deal on regional security and non-proliferation, and President Widodo reportedly registered his misgivings with the then-Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison.

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For a country that has long prided itself on maintaining a neutral posture in great power conflicts, it is crucial that Admiral Margono support the development of Indonesia’s armed forces so that the country is able to respond to emerging threats on its own terms.

But there is a long road ahead, given the military’s historical underperformance. Indonesia ranked just 13th out of 26 countries in Asia for military capability in the 2021 Lowy Institute Asia Power Index – this performance needs to improve if the country is to be a more influential regional military power.

So how will the new armed forces chief try to set the military on the right course?

During the fit and proper test Admiral Margono faced in the house of representatives, he described four priorities for his leadership.

The first was the acceleration of the development of human resources in Indonesian military assignments, based on high levels professionalism and “spirit”.

The second was to increase the capacity of the armed forces, specifically in terms of its defence infrastructure. After a 2021 disaster in which an Indonesian submarine sank during routine exercises off the coast of Bali – costing the lives of all 53 crew – there has been significant criticism of the country’s ageing fleets.

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Third was increasing the military’s capacity to carry out multi-domain and combined arms operations by strengthening the interoperability of the navy, air force and army. This has been a focus of the Indonesian military for some time, with the country establishing the Joint Regional Defense Command in 2019.

Finally, he wanted to improve the implementation of bureaucratic reform and the organisational culture within the TNI to support all duties and responsibilities of the armed forces.

This bureaucratic reform is necessary to ensure good governance in the military, to stamp out any corruption, and to enhance its performance.

Beyond these priorities, Admiral Margono may be able to strengthen bilateral defence relationships with Indonesia’s neighbours.

He already has a strong relationship with Australia, having been appointed Member in the Military Division of the Order of Australia in recognition of his ”exceptional service in strengthening the Australian and Indonesian ties” in 2022.

He was also awarded a prestigious military honour from Singapore President Halimah Yacoob this year.

Maintaining strong relations with these two countries is of particular importance. Indonesia’s parliament finally ratified the Indonesia-Singapore Defence Cooperation Agreement after 15 years of negotiations, and a recent claim of sovereignty over Australia’s Ashmore Reef by Indonesian Minister Sandiaga Uno highlighted the risk of misunderstandings in the region.

However, his relationship with the United States might not be as close as his predecessor’s, which could lead to a more neutral position on competition between United States and China.

Admiral Margono’s promotion to the TNI head comes at a time of major change, both within Indonesia and the Indo-Pacific broadly. To meet the region’s evolving threats and opportunities, he must find a way to improve Indonesia’s capabilities in an increasingly contested region.

Most importantly, given his naval background, he should be able to orient the military towards a more maritime-oriented posture, which is an important step considering Indonesia’s geographical landscape and likely future challenges.

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