Educating Costa Rica: A Master Class in Influence

Costa Rica advertises itself as the “Switzerland of Central America,” but under President Carlos Alvarado’s administration, drug trafficking, narco-wars, homicides, corruption, and foreign state interference into politics and government systems have skyrocketed. These effects can be traced to poor decisions by Carlos Alvarado’s administration. The first was a mishandling of the Nicaraguan immigration crisis; the second, a poorly thought out financial reform. However, by putting the country’s situation under a microscope, one can see the shadowy hand of a foreign state actor at work: Cuba. The Castro government has found Costa Rica’s higher education system, considered one of the best in Latin America, to be a soft entry point into the heart of its democracy.

Costa Rica is clearly undergoing a massive influence campaign from pro-leftist, pro-Castro, and pro-Chavist countries. Cuba, in particular, wields influence through Costa Rica’s higher education system by manipulating education and mobilizing discontented students. A number of influential players within Costa Rica, driven by a mix of personal greed and ideology, use their positions to give Cuba the upper hand. Cuba is not, however, the only one benefitting from the Costa Rican education system’s instability.

Educating Costa Rica

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) and National University (UNA) are the country’s main higher education institutions. They are also a major political force within the Legislative Assembly and have strong ties to the majority party, the left-of-center Citizen’s Action Party (PAC). PAC has led the country since Luis Guillermo Solís’ 2014-18 presidency. Unfortunately for the current administration under Carlos Alvarado, Solís’ legacy included several scandals, rampant corruption, a financial crisis, and social uncertainty.

Soon after his election, Alvarado worsened the situation with two grave miscalculations. He poorly handled a massive wave of Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the Ortega dictatorship and then enacted a long-overdue financial reform without proper long-term planning. This provoked a three-month strike at the end of 2018 with massive political, economic, social, financial, and security consequences for Costa Rica.

In the midst of this turmoil, the rectors of UCR and UNA, Henning Jensen Pennington and Alberto Salom, silently began working to protect Costa Rica’s education system from the country’s politics. They acknowledged the ongoing financial crisis but encouraged students to protest financial reforms because of their effect on education sector funds. This “self-protection program” culminated on July 1st, 2019, with the resignation of the Minister of Education, Edgar Mora, due to his alleged lack of planning and management during the financial negotiations. His Vice Minister for Regional Coordination and Institutional Planning, Amparo Pacheco, resigned immediately after.

Not-so-Covert Influencers

Pennington and Salom have long been associated with the current instability in Costa Rica’s education system and are known Cuba supporters. Though Pennington was the stronger supporter of the “leftist insurgent movement” during the 2018 protests, Salom has been an active supporter of cultural exchanges with Cuba since 2011. A former PAC legislator from 2006 to 2010, he is very close to Costa Rica’s political elite and still has considerable support in the Legislative Assembly. During a Presidential visit to Havana in 2016, Alberto Salom signed the agreement of mutual collaboration and exchange with Cuba’s Ministry of Higher Education in his capacity as President of the Costa Rican National Council of University Presidents (CONARE). As it turns out, during Salom’s time as a legislator, his assistant and adviser was none other than Carlos Alvarado.

Thanks to these strategic maneuvers, the rectors gave themselves the tools to legally promote their voices by manipulating student movements. They could freely promulgate their leftist vision and pro-Castro attitudes via university-led education and cultural exchanges with Cuba. Their long-term objective is to spread the “truth” about Cuban Communism through the universities and to maintain complete political, social, and legislative control of the university education sector that yields millions of dollars. Salom’s last “restructuring” project called for a USD $14 million allocation. Both rectors personally supported student uprisings against the redirection of education sector funds towards constructing new university buildings on the disputed basis that doing so would compromise scholarships. The opposition party questioned this before the Legislative Assembly on the suspicion he was diverting it for other purposes. To bolster his view, Salom made university buses available to transport students to protest locations.

In light of government investigations and public concerns over pro-Castro propaganda and ideology, some members of the student body, those associated with the student federation known by its acronym FEUNA, are beginning to question the rectors’ integrity and functionality. Students angered by the manipulation and false information campaign, as well as the betrayal of the universities’ ethical mandate, have publicly declared their dissatisfaction with the rectors’ programs and called for their resignations. Naturally, both refused but Salom went on to highlight how indispensable he is for the future of UNA and its students’ careers. President Alvarado immediately backed him, confirming suspicions about Costa Rica’s highest level of government.

Foreign Education

There are several cases of foreign state actors exploiting universities worldwide. Campuses are fertile ground for raising easily manipulated young dissidents and followers. For Costa Rica, whose geostrategic position is integral in creating a Latin American “sphere of influence”, the level of foreign influence in their education system presents a major issue. Continuing waves of student protests, encouraged by pro-Cuban university leaders, could lead to unrest similar to that which has shaken Latin America in the last few months.

The counterintelligence implications represent another challenge for Costa Rica’s national security. At this point, without a proper threat assessment and operational countermeasures, it may be too late for the country’s intelligence and security agencies to properly engage this threat. If government institutions lack coordination, transparency, and a strong willingness to follow the “rule of law”, the situation will deteriorate further.

Though Cuba may be the primary agent attempting to influence Costa Rica, it does not do so entirely on its own. Cuba’s current tactics have a distinctly Russian flavor. Certainly, if Costa Rica remains a non-aligned stronghold of democracy in the region, Russia will view it as key to expanding its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. In this way, the destabilizing agenda and relationships of a few influential politicians and bureaucrats in San Jose could threaten the non-alignment of the “Switzerland of Central America” and place it within the arena of superpower competition. If there is one thing Costa Ricans should remember from the last time a Castro meddled in their security, it is that then, as now, the Cubans were operating off a Russian lesson plan.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Why Russia Cannot Win

In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 fighter jet engaged and destroyed a Russian Su-24 Sukhoi that Ankara accused of violating its airspace. Moscow protested, claiming the aircraft remained over Syrian territory where the Russian military has been supporting the Assad regime with direct combat power since 2014. Though the drama of that incident led to a tense discussion, the relationship between the two countries returned quickly to reasonably good terms until recently. Last week, a Russian airstrike in support of Syrian Army forces in Idlib province killed 33 Turkish soldiers that probably made up a Turkish special operations command post there. Though Russia denied their air force was operating in the area, in the same breath they accused the Turks of breaking the 2018 ceasefire, which was designed to create a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region. As the world pleaded for de-escalation, Turkey vowed a vengeful response. 

Ankara has since backed up its threat. On March 1st, Turkish jets began systematically attacking the Syrian Army and its proxies in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Turkish airpower is relentlessly and very effectively targeting the armor, artillery, aircraft, and other heavy equipment of the Syrian Army, which seems completely unprepared to deal with a threat from the air. The destruction has been so complete that it is raising questions about the efficacy of the Russian equipment fielded by the Syrian Army. Still, many say Turkey should act more firmly enough against Russia itself. They argue Turkey could put its substantial military power onto a full wartime footing much easier than Russia. Though this is true, Ankara’s long experience in the region cautions that the key to winning a clash there is by playing the long game and not jumping to conclusions. 

Indirect Support

Turkey has learned extensively from these battles and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. Turkey isn’t the only one with expertise in complicated disputes close to home. Russia also has similar ongoing conflicts and is applying those lessons in Syria. But there are differences. Syria is far from the Russian frontier, and its value to Russian power and prestige is not as apparent to the Russian public as other battlefields in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine). For Russia’s Syrian campaign to be successful, Moscow needs to keep casualties to an absolute minimum. Russian public opinion will not support yet another war of attrition like the Soviet-Afghan war without a clear Russian interest. 

To keep casualties to a minimum, Russia isolates its soldiers on bases protected by their allies and limits its use of force to Special Operations or fighter aviation, both of which are hard for the Turkey-affiliated Free Syrian Army to combat. As a second layer of defense, Russia provides its proxies, specifically the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with advanced surface-to-air systems, anti-artillery radars, artillery, and different types of armored vehicles. These measures ensure that the “meatshield” keeping Russian forces safe from Free Syrian Army attacks remains in place. These tactics worked well thus far. Since Russia entered the region, rebel-controlled territory has shrunk continuously, and areas where the Free Syrian Army did manage to gain ground were quickly reconquered. 

However, Turkey has learned extensively from its decades-long battle with the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and is using that experience in its quarrel with Russia. A quick study of Turkish targeting shows Turkey is attacking the technical advantage Russia gave to the SAA, enabling the Free Syrian Army to advance and putting Russian forces in potential danger. By peeling back the layers of protection provided by SAA equipment instead of attacking the Russian soldiers that equipment protects, Turkey avoids turning the Russian public against Ankara and makes it very hard for Putin to justify a decision to escalate. At the same time, it transforms the entire conflict into a slow, persistent competition rather than an unbearably costly direct between two powerful contenders.

Playing the Long Game

The Turkish strategy demonstrates a nuanced reading of the history of the region in which no invading force has ever won such a competition. If Russia, Assad, and the SAA fail to quickly implement a serious countermeasure to Turkish airpower, the technically inferior rebels will begin advancing on all fronts, and the Russian body count will rise. This will have the effect of eroding Russian public opinion in support of Assad and force Putin to push for accommodation, not unlike the one that ended the Chechen war.

Though it will take some time before this strategy bears fruit, short-term gains by the Free Syrian Army are already visible along the northern, western, and southwestern fronts. Aleppo is once again in danger, an unbelievable consideration just a couple of weeks ago. Putin and Erdogan both know Russia is at a disadvantage in Turkey’s back yard and will most likely discuss a deal when they meet in Moscow on Thursday, March 5th. Until then, or until Russia can field an effective anti-air capability to the SAA in Idlib, Syrian, and possibly Russian, soldiers will continue to die in a war Russia just cannot win.


Mike Skillt is a former combat veteran and analyst now advising tomorrow’s leaders. Follow him on Twitter @MikaelSkillt.

United We Stand: Mahathir’s Resignation

At one o’clock local time on the 24th of February, Malaysia’s 95-year-old Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, shocked the world by announcing his resignation. The two-time Prime Minister is the single most powerful post-independence political figure in Malaysian history, and his resignation has thrown the country’s political future into turmoil as all sides struggle to react to the news.

Not only was Mahathir Prime Minister from 1998-2003, but he was also a founding member of the United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO); a component of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition that led the government from independence in 1957 until it was finally superseded in 2018 by the Pakatan Harapan coalition. Not incidentally, Pakatan is led by Mahathir’s long-time Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who was ousted from UMNO in 1998 after a falling out with Mahathir. Anwar’s subsequent journey through the political wilderness is itself an amazing story of persecution, incarceration, and a determined return to power, which may have something to do with Mahathir’s surprise move yesterday.

Power Play

The drama between Anwar and Mahathir goes back to the then-Deputy Prime Minister’s rising ambitions in the late 1990s. Having risen to prominence partly due to his stringent Islamic politics, Anwar’s increasing popularity among the majority Malay voters began to strain the relationship with his boss. When the Asian Financial Crisis rocked the emerging economies of Southeast Asia, Mahathir took a controversially unconventional approach. He pegged Malaysia’s currency, the Ringgit, to the US Dollar and severely restricted its fungibility on world markets. Though the move was ultimately the right one for Malaysia’s economy, Anwar’s vocal opposition to it finally destroyed his relationship with Mahathir.

Sensing that Anwar was using his criticism not just to fight Mahathir’s currency policy but to build a political coalition against him, Mahathir reacted with surprising fury. He ousted Anwar from his position and from UMNO, charged him with sodomy – a move designed to hurt his standing with Malays – and jailed him under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The ISA is a successor to similar laws enacted during British rule and conceived as powerful but necessary tools for fighting a longstanding and very effective Communist insurgency. The ISA’s use as a political tool against Anwar cast a shadow over Malaysian governance until 2012 when the ISA was repealed and replaced by two other laws ostensibly written with greater accountability in mind.

Mahathir finally felt prepared to retire from politics in 2003 once Anwar was safely in prison. However, Mahathir did not go quitely into a post-political life. Through his influence in UMNO, Mahathir first maneuvered to place Badawi — and unlikely candidate — in the Prime Minister’s post before later turning against him in favor of Mohammad Najib bin Razak, scion of a political family and son of the country’s second Prime Minister. Aside from these maneuvers, there were constant declarations from Mahathir himself opining on all manner of subjects. His statements had a tremendous impact on UMNO’s leadership in particular, constraining their freedom of action and bending the party to his will despite his status as a private citizen.

Najib, a compelling politician in his own right, began to exert himself more independently than Mahathir was comfortable with. Public disagreements between the two occasionally caused concern within UMNO, especially as Anwar’s leadership of a series of opposition coalitions began to erode BN’s dominance of Malaysian politics even as he served a second prison term for new charges of sodomy starting in 2015. When emerging details about the massive 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal began to implicate Najib himself, Mahathir again intervened boldly.

Bersatu

Translated from Malay, “Bersatu” means “united” and was the short name Mahathir selected for an entirely new political party he would use to take on Najib. Though the party drew some prominent defectors from UMNO, it appeared to have the narrow political goal of saving Malaysia from Najib’s corruption by replacing him with Mahathir. To accomplish this, he made a pact with Pakatan, presenting Anwar as the victim of a politically motivated conspiracy and promising to pardon him if they successfully contested the 2018 general election. With pressure mounting from 1MDB, Pakatan managed to win a substantial majority in the parliament. For the first time in Malaysia’s history, BN was no longer in power. Mahathir assumed duties as the country’s seventh Prime Minister on the 10th of May 2018. Anwar was pardoned and released on the 16th and Najib was arrested for corruption in July.

Though their victory seemed complete, there were cracks. As part of the deal with Pakatan, Mahathir was supposed to serve temporarily until some undefined milestone would signal the ascendance of Anwar to the post of Prime Minister. Though both men talked openly about this inevitable transition and their personal reconciliation at the time, Mahathir’s remaining in the position for nearly two years may have exacerbated distrust between them going back to 1998. These well-known animosities have led to speculation that Mahathir’s resignation today may have had more to do with holding onto power than relinquishing it. According to the popular Malaysian newspaper, The Star, a “well-placed source within Bersatu” alleged that Mahathir’s resignation was the result of an internal split over whether to remain in the Pakatan coalition. Leaving the coalition would have likely forced the King to allow Anwar to form a new government, a move Mahathir ostensibly opposed.

Malaysian politics is now at a crossroads. With Bersatu officially out of Pakatan, nearly a dozen Bersatu officials have resigned along with Mahathir. Though this would typically be a strong signal Anwar will finally achieve his dream of becoming Malaysia’s Prime Minister, the King this afternoon announced Mahathir would continue as “interim Prime Minister” until a new one can be chosen. This is an odd decision considering Anwar remains the leader of the largest party in Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister (Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail) is a legitimate politician in her own right. What happens next will be an intense interaction between the King, Anwar, Mahathir, and various factions within Bersatu and Pakatan.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister-Delegate Faces Long Odds

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.
HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hassan Diab, who is set to become Lebanon’s new prime minister, will not overcome the country’s political, economic or security challenges.
  • Prolonged political paralysis will heighten Lebanon’s economic crisis, and potentially spark violence as major factions like Hezbollah struggle to hold onto power.
  • Heightened tensions between the United States and Iran could also lead to more sanctions on Lebanon, or even to open conflict there.

Lebanon’s new candidate for prime minister, Hassan Diab, stands little chance of breaking Lebanon’s political deadlock. And he will face even greater challenges than political paralysis, such as a worsening economic crisis and security crises as Hezbollah turns to stronger tactics to maintain its influence and as the chances grow of a U.S.-Iran regional conflict that could draw in Lebanon.


The Big Picture
Lebanon is engulfed in political paralysis and economic crisis, and its prime minister candidate, Hassan Diab, will not have many ways to overcome either. As the economy worsens, Lebanon’s security situation will become even more precarious. Meanwhile, rising tensions between Iran and the United States could spark a conflict that brings a regional war to Lebanon itself.
 

Daunting Prospects for Domestic or Foreign Support

Diab, who is set to succeed longtime Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri as prime minister, will face substantial hurdles. These include winning the support of a protest movement that will not accept a prime minister with ties to the establishment, which they blame for Lebanon’s economic crisis and long-standing corruption. They also include simultaneously winning the support of either the country’s March 8 alliance, to which Hezbollah belongs, or the March 14 alliance, to which al-Hariri’s Future Movement belongs. To maintain the support of either of the alliances, Lebanese prime ministers must dole out state support to them and their adherents. But it is precisely that sort of insider activity that is motivating protesters to take to the streets. Protests have helped accelerate Lebanon’s economic crisis by disrupting the economy, driving away tourists and causing capital flight. By pleasing either protesters or politicians, a prime minister angers the other, making it much harder to govern. At the same time that securing domestic support will prove daunting, foreign support will be harder to find. Lebanese prime ministers have often been able to govern thanks to foreign largesse. That support, which in the past has taken the form of direct U.S. or French aid and favorable bond purchases from Gulf Arab states, has allowed the government to spend lavishly to keep its own supporters happy, often through providing government jobs or favorable contracts. But foreign benefactors have become unwilling to grant Lebanon new aid unless it enacts austerity measures, a requirement that would cut the funds the government needs to maintain patronage networks.
This will undermine the political consensus among Lebanon’s major parties (and their associated militias) that has kept them from challenging the sectarian political system, which since independence has guaranteed that a Christian will serve as president, a Sunni as prime minister and a Shiite as speaker of parliament. Moreover, the nonsectarian nature of the Lebanese protest movement undermines Lebanon’s sectarian political system, challenging traditional political players.

Few Good Options for Politicians

Lebanon’s government and political insiders have little recourse. They cannot rally protest movements against their political enemies, like the March 8 and March 14 alliances did in 2005 after Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s slaying created a political crisis. Today, with the bulk of the protesters angry at all political parties, the alliances don’t have the same rallying power. Beirut can’t increase spending to alleviate the country’s economic woes either, given the drop in foreign aid, the government’s indebtedness and its dwindling foreign reserves. Diab is not immune to these challenges. Though a relatively apolitical Sunni, he faces strong resistance from the protest movement in large part because he’s seen as too close to Hezbollah — and therefore as too much of a political insider. He also lacks the kind of foreign allies to tap for aid that al-Hariri had, though even if Diab did ask, aid would probably not be forthcoming anyway. He is therefore likely to struggle to accomplish much once in office, and may not stay there long. But even obtaining and exercising power effectively would still not solve three other major problems bedeviling the country: the economy, Hezbollah and potential U.S.-Iranian conflict.

The Economy, Hezbollah and U.S.-Iranian Conflict

Lebanon’s deeply unstable economy is worsening. Some major Lebanese bonds are due as early as March, and foreign exchange reserves, a bulwark the country had built up in case of a crisis, are strained by a combination of U.S. banking sanctions aimed at Hezbollah and the deteriorating economy. The United States has broken with its previous policy by bringing sanctions against Lebanese banks and upsetting the country’s delicate internal balance. In 2020, it is likely to seek to further sanction Hezbollah — and by extension Lebanon’s economy, since Hezbollah is entangled with much of Lebanon’s business. These sanctions would worsen Lebanon’s economic situation and complicate any potential foreign bailouts. The longer the economic crisis goes on, the more likely Lebanon is to run short of basic goods and be unable to pay state worker salaries, issues that will impact all sects and political parties. That will weaken the insiders’ hold on their old loyalists and strengthen the protest movement. In a bid to salvage whatever legitimacy they can, Lebanon’s factions — especially Hezbollah — will pivot from financial incentives to physical intimidation, potentially sparking a civil crisis. Hezbollah and its allies would prefer to avoid civil conflict, but they do not want to lose their gains from the May 2018 election, when a Hezbollah ally became the country’s health minister, giving him significant patronage powers. They also do not want to see the emergence of a less sectarian Lebanon, since this could cause voters in Hezbollah turf to consider backing another party. To prevent this outcome, Hezbollah has already sought to cow Shiites into not participating in protests.
Hezbollah will not purposefully stoke a civil conflict lest things get out of hand, but its increased use of physical intimidation may spawn one anyway. 

But while Hezbollah will not purposefully stoke a civil conflict lest things get out of hand, its increased use of physical intimidation may spawn one anyway, by setting up potential clashes between Hezbollah and protesters, the Lebanese army or other armed political factions. Any ensuing confrontations could eventually spark civil conflict. If that happens, foreigners are likely to get involved. The Americans, the Israelis, the Iranians, the Gulf Arabs and even the Syrians, Russians, and Turks all have an interest in shaping the country’s security situation. Meanwhile, no Lebanese faction has the power to stop the U.S.-Iran conflict, the ramifications of which could hit Lebanon, whether via sanctions or outright military conflict. Should this come to pass, Lebanese political paralysis would get even worse, while the country would face an economic and security crisis unlike anything since its 2006 war with Israel. Moreover, Hezbollah, Tehran’s most capable proxy, could find itself as the spearhead of Iranian retaliation against Israeli or American targets. Doing so, however, would invite a massive Israeli and/or U.S. response in Lebanon. And a military conflict of that scale would usher in yet another troubling chapter in Lebanon’s crisis-ridden history.
 
Editor’s Note: The map accompanying this assessment has been replaced to correct a mislabeled city name.

Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

www.stratfor.com



Engulfing Natuna: Indonesia and the 9-Dashed Line

Last month, a small fleet of Chinese fishing vessels escorted by the Chinese Coast Guard began fishing the waters of the Indonesian island of Natuna, making it the latest center of tension in the South China Sea. Natuna and the exclusive economic zone around it sit very close to the infamous 9-dashed line China claims as its maritime boundary in the region, raising the risk of confrontation over where Beijing decides it can send its trawlers. Though Indonesia denies it is a South China Sea claimant, Jakarta is discovering the South China Sea controversy may claim Natuna anyway.

Origins of the Dispute

Though territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new, the coming into force of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1986 codified an array of customary international laws regarding maritime boundaries. While this solved a great many problems, it created others. One of those was the need for China (and others) to establish their baselines in the South China Sea. China did this by reviving an old map featuring nine dashes in a line extending far to the south of Hainan Island, the now infamous 9-dashed line.

The South China Sea is now one of the world’s most heavily disputed areas. No fewer than six states have overlapping claims on all the resources within exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nautical miles from their UNCLOS-defined baselines. Not only does the 9-dashed line put China at odds with all of these claimant states, the ambiguity of using a dashed line as an international boundary enables Beijing to flexibly interpret its claim, including the EEZ around Natuna.

Claims in the South China Sea that affect NatunaShortly after the Chinese flotilla arrived in mid-December, Indonesia registered a complaint with the Chinese ambassador. The response from Beijing provided no legal argument, saying that their fisherman “have long been active in the area.” This, however, is not the first time Jakarta faced problems with Chinese encroachment. Since October 2014, the administration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has sunk well over 500 foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Most of those were destroyed in spectacular controlled explosions broadcast on the internet to maximize their deterrent effect.

Though, the vast majority were not seized near Natuna, nor were most of them Chinese. Still, Beijing has been careful to avoid triggering Indonesia’s inherent right to self-defense through the use of tools like the Chinese Maritime Militia, a fleet of civilian craft that operate in a coordinated manner to disrupt and intimidate non-Chinese shipping. The ambiguous status of the Maritime Militia protects it from military responses and instead pits it against coastal law enforcement agencies that are less well-equipped to deal with them. The deployment of the Chinese Coast Guard – rather than the Maritime Militia – from the outset of the Natuna drama suggests Beijing does not believe ambiguity will protect it from Indonesian reprisals.

Jakarta’s Natuna Response

The Indonesian response was substantial despite being slow to gather. After receiving the unsatisfactory reply from Beijing on January 1st the Jokowi administration increased naval patrols in Natuna on January 3rd. Then it dispatched two additional warships followed by four F-16 fighter aircraft to Indonesia’s brand-new military base on the island. By the time of Jokowi’s visit on the 8th, where he delivered a defiant speech in defense of Indonesian sovereignty, Natuna was host to the F-16s and seven warships, more than double its usual complement.

Though China withdrew its flotilla to the boundary of Natuna’s EEZ on January 9th, Indonesia’s Chief Security Minister, Mahfud MD, announced the Navy would sustain increased patrolling for a time. Additionally, in a move that echoes the ambiguity of China’s Maritime Militia, the Indonesian Fisherman Association sent some 500 fishing vessels to Natuna to deter further incursions. Though it is not clear exactly how this will work or how effective this type of response will continue to be in the future, for now, Jakarta has made the point that it does not take incursions into its waters lightly. That it did so without regional partners suggests this will not be the last time China attempts to push the limits.

ASEAN Leadership

Many observers believe a strong Indonesian response will stiffen the resolve of other claimant states to stand up to China. Still, that kind of unity on South China Sea issues has been elusive at best. China adopted a divide and conquer strategy early on, insisting on negotiating disputes bilaterally. Beijing wields its economic power as a foreign policy tool, granting or withholding commercial assistance in accordance with its priorities. As this element of Chinese influence grows, so, too, does its impact and effectiveness on its rivals. The strategy has been successful thus far. ASEAN has been unable to agree on a declaration regarding the South China Sea and still hotly debates a less muscular “code of conduct.”

Indonesia is the largest ASEAN member state in almost every measurable way. While its leadership in the region is real and significant, Natuna is not even a unifying issue within Jokowi’s government. While he and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi focus on the sovereignty of Indonesia’s EEZ, the powerful Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, downplays the issue and frames it as an economic one. Prabowo’s rhetoric when he ran for President against Jokowi positioned him as a virulently anti-Chinese candidate. His transformation illustrates the sensitivity of this issue to domestic politics.

Indonesia, like every other South China Sea claimant state, must determine how to defend its sovereignty against an increasingly powerful and assertive China. Bandwagoning with other ASEAN member states is clearly not an option. Balancing behavior and alliances with regional and global powers can help prevent the situation from escalating to armed conflict. Still, both are problematic for the island nation with a defiantly independent tradition. In Natuna, Jakarta elected to employ a show of military force as a deterrent, and it worked…this time. However, Beijing has proven adept at applying all its elements of national power to achieve its goals. As the 9-dashed line creeps forward and the South China Sea dispute threatens to engulf Natuna, Jakarta will find its military power stretched in ways it is not designed to operate.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

…Access, experience, and knowledge…Worldwide

%d bloggers like this: