One of the big changes in the second term of Indonesia’s President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was the departure in October 2019 of the popular minister for maritime affairs and fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti. Susi is best known for cracking down on illegal fishing with a high-profile policy of blowing-up and sinking foreign fishing vessels. But there are concerns about the future of this deterrence policy with her exit. In late December, more than 50 Chinese fishing vessels and government ships loitered in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone without permission, prompting Indonesia’s foreign ministry to lodge a formal complaint with China. This incursion, just two months after Susi’s departure, raises the question: what legacies has she left behind?
First and foremost, Susi leaves behind a sterling track record on combating illegal fishing. Her leadership and the work of the Presidential Task Force to Combat Illegal Fishing, established in 2015, led to a 90 percent drop in reported levels of foreign poaching. She combined a deterrent policy of blowing up boats—556, to be exact—with a ban on transshipment in Indonesian waters, which was often used as a cover for illegal underreporting and export of catch. Despite being criticized by some senior ministers and the parliament, she enjoyed the strong support of the president.
The second of Susi’s legacies is a strengthened regime for marine environmental protection. She enacted policies aimed at improving sustainability, including bans on bottom trawling, selling undersized shellfish, and fishing in breeding grounds, leading to a significant increase in biomass. During her tenure, Indonesia met nearly all its pledge to set aside 200,000 square kilometers of territorial waters as marine protected areas by 2020.
Third, Susi’s performance has shown that personality and experience matter. As a political outsider, her appointment was emblematic of Jokowi’s serious commitment to the maritime domain. A straight-talking, self-made businessperson, Susi was interested in getting things done, not making friends. She was willing to butt heads even with Jokowi’s closest senior advisor, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan, including over how to handle Chinese fishing vessels.
That said, not all her policies were popular. Changes to licensing regimes and the ban on trawling, which diminished catch yields for small-scale fishers, led to backlash. But in a country where public trust in ministers and politicians has traditionally been low, Susi’s reputation as a “can-do” operator partially reversed such perceptions.
But if Susi was so effective and maritime issues so important to the president, why was she replaced by Edhy Prabowo, a career politician from the Gerindra party of Jokowi’s opponent in the 2019 presidential race Prabowo Subianto? The first possible explanation is that Susi wasn’t needed anymore. With such low rates of illegal fishing, Jokowi might have seen fewer reasons to keep an iconoclast like Susi around. Meanwhile, as with the appointment of Prabowo Subianto himself as minister of defense, Jokowi had politically expedient reasons to hand an important portfolio like fisheries to his rivals. But despite Susi’s successes, much is left to be reformed.
Another potential factor in Susi’s departure was the schism between her and Luhut Pandjaitan. While she advocated a no-exemptions policy toward destroying captured vessels, Luhut advocated a more nuanced approach that involved boosting local fishers more than punishing foreigners, particularly Chinese operators.
With a career politician like Edhy now in place, where does this leave some of Indonesia’s maritime policies? Thus far, Edhy Prabowo has announced a softer approach on deterring illegal fishing. The new minister has declared that he will not pursue Susi’s aggressive policy of blowing up boats. Instead, he wants to give them to local fishers or turn them into floating hospitals. Environmentalists worry that auctioning the boats could put them back in poachers’ hands. There is legitimate cause for concern: in January 2019, the Indonesian Navy caught two Vietnamese boats fishing illegally after being previously confiscated and auctioned off.
The recent case of Chinese fishing and coastguard vessels off the Natuna Islands suggests this softer approach by Edhy’s ministry might not contribute to an overall effective deterrent. China might have seized an opportunity with more ministers less prepared than Susi to risk a confrontation. In early January, both Defense Minister Prabowo and Luhut downplayed the issue with a “friend country.” Luhut also defended Edhy’s policies, insisting the incursions by Chinese vessels were due to capability shortages leaving maritime agencies unable to defend Indonesian waters. He said the recent incident with China should be taken as a “momentum for self-reflection” for Indonesia and called for naval upgrades in the form of “ocean going” vessels.
Edhy may also undo Susi-era environmental gains. For one, he has said the ban on bottom trawling nets is currently under review. A member of People’s Coalition for Justice in Fisheries, a non-government organization, recently called on the new minister to ensure equitable fishing practices between large commercial operatives and smaller fishers and monitor fishing equipment to ensure sustainability. Edhy has also promoted the idea of building up Indonesia’s lobster industry by revoking Susi’s ban on exporting lobster seed—a move that has drawn his predecessor’s ire on Twitter.
What does this all mean for Indonesia’s maritime partners? As Luhut has said, capability shortages are one factor challenging Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty. Maritime domain awareness remains an area of growing cooperation with partners such as the United States. There is also greater potential for partner coast guards and militaries to help support Indonesia patrol its seas. For instance, the coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on to Combat Illegal Fishing, Achmad Santosa, has called for strengthening patrols around not just Indonesia’s Natuna Islands but its boundaries with Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Timor–Leste.
On the diplomatic front, the recent joint statement from the Australia–Indonesia foreign and defense ministers’ meeting expressed “serious concerns” about developments in the South China Sea. The rare united statement is a starting point for more discussions on how both countries could work together on strengthening sovereignty. Efforts with Indonesia’s diplomatic traditional partners might be more complicated. Despite Vietnam’s willingness to stand up to China in the past, the frequent and high-profile violations by Vietnamese ships in Indonesian waters might make ASEAN criticism of foreign vessels violating Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone appear hypocritical.
Jakarta’s leading lady on maritime affairs has now exited the stage, her legacies left in doubt. The words “Global Maritime Fulcrum” have been dropped from Jokowi’s political rhetoric. Chinese fishing vessels accompanied by the China Coast Guard have lingered around the Natuna Islands for several weeks before reportedly leaving. There are lessons to draw from China’s timing and aggressive posture. Indonesia’s maritime policies are by no means easy, so lobsters aside, Edhy Prabowo has his work cut out for him.