Indonesia wants to reclaim airspace controlled by Singapore within 5 years, according to an ambitious plan by President Joko Widodo, who in recent weeks has been showing off a more muscular foreign policy in the region.
Airspace over the Riau and Natuna islands near Singapore has been under the control of Singapore since 1946. It also serves as the corridor for flights in and out of Changi Airport, one of Asia’s busiest international flight paths.
In recent media reports, CNN had erroneously reported that Singapore was willing to cede the airspace to Indonesia, but Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean has since rubbished such claims online.
According to DPM Teo, Indonesia’s push to reclaim the airspace should be dependent on whether Indonesia can provide effective air traffic control services, stating that sovereignty has not been an issue for years.
“Of course it’s related to sovereignty,” Indonesia Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in an interview on Tuesday in Jakarta. “They have no right to decline, it is Indonesia’s right.”
The stance reflects Indonesia’s efforts to step up control of the borders of the world’s largest archipelago, which stretches from maritime boundaries with India in the west to Australia in the east. Widodo’s government has developed the coast guard, blown up illegal fishing vessels and deployed warships in the gas-rich waters around Natuna in response to China’s growing military presence in the disputed South China Sea.
Widodo’s more aggressive foreign policy may stem from his move to shore up political support from the army, with key appointments in the government being given to ex-army men such as government security chief Luhut Panjaitan. The Indonesian government has also signaled a move away from his predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s “a million friends and zero enemies” approach.
“The Indonesian air force wants to control their own space,” said Wisnu Darjono, a director at the state air navigation agency. Singapore took control when Indonesia lacked the ability “but now our facilities are almost equal with Singapore. We are ready to control that area.”
Indonesia informed Singapore of its intentions during a visit to Jakarta last month by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. The administration of the so-called Flight Information Region is a complex issue under the ambit of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, Teo told Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi during the visit, according to Singapore’s foreign ministry.
“There are many instances where the territorial airspace of a country is managed by the air traffic authorities in another,” the ministry said on its website. “Indonesia also provides air traffic services in airspace which belongs to other countries.”
However, Indonesia has still been struggling to regulate its aviation sector after a spate of accidents, including at least three deadly crashes this year and last December’s crash of an AirAsia Bhd. plane carrying 162 people.
“The airspace issue is the last thing that Indonesia should be worried about,” said Paul Rowland, an independent Jakarta-based political consultant. “It is not a sovereignty issue, but about technical capacity. It is not going to be solved by a war of words. Indonesia already has a shortage of controllers without taking on additional airspace.”