Pointless’ for Jakarta to review air borders

It might have appeared innocuous at first sight.

Just four lines in a seven-page year-end review of foreign policy touching on Jakarta’s concerns with Singapore over the control of regional airspace, among other age-old bilateral issues.

But Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayudah then revisited the matter in more specific terms at a breakfast meeting with senior officials last Wednesday.

He said Jakarta planned to take over full control of its air space – including the management of regional flight information currently handled by neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

Indonesia, he added, was also reconsidering a memorandum with Singapore that allowed the Republic’s air force to use Indonesian air space for training.

Old wine in a new bottle? Or a fresh, potent brew to poison bilateral ties?

How should Singapore view these comments? Is it a calculated move by Jakarta to be more assertive in its dealings with Singapore and others in South-east Asia? Or merely a by-product of nationalist stirrings?

The backdrop of recent developments suggests the latter. Domestic political considerations are underpinning a nationalist
reflex.

There is an undercurrent of anger here over the loss of Sipadan and Ligitan islands to Malaysia.

In it’s December ruling, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) said Kuala Lumpur had shown ‘manifestations of state authority’ over the islands for years compared to Indonesia.

Since then, feisty legislators have been demanding an explanation from President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her government over the ruling.

So it would appear that Mr Wirayudah and other senior officials have little choice but to play to this hostile gallery.

The focus on bilateral issues like sand mining, border demarcation and air space control has become more pronounced in public discourse here as the government seeks to defuse criticism over its loss at the ICJ.

The question is whether this will influence policy-making significantly.

Jakarta must be circumspect in its views on airspace control.

As Indonesia develops, it believes it has every right to take over the management. No one disputes that notion. But are the Indonesia authorities ready and able to do so?

Secondly, it should realise that the Flight Information Region (FIR), which a number of countries control for take-off, landing and over flights, is really determined by the international community.

Bilateral deals are a no-go.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation demarcates the FIR and decides which country is responsible for managing the airspace in designated zones.

It would be pointless to relook air boundaries and abandon a consensus by United Nations member states just to pander to the nationalist pique of a few in Jakarta.

Indonesia should also not attempt to link the air force training agreement with the FIR. They clearly are separate issues.

Even if some in the civilian administration plan to do so, they are unlikely to get support from the generals. The Indonesian military has traditionally enjoyed close ties with the Singapore Armed Forces and will not want to jeopardise such relations.

Then, there is also the concern that would be generated regionally and beyond if an ill-equipped and ill-prepared agency took over responsibility for regional air traffic.

As Indonesia develops, a review of the present arrangements governing regional air space will happen in good time. Given the many challenges that the country faces, now hardly seems like a very good time.

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