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What's behind Indonesia's move to reclaim control of Riau Islands airspace from Singapore?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 22/8/2019 Toh Ee Ming
a boat is docked next to a body of water: Any change to the airspace now controlled by Singapore would affect Changi Airport’s operations. Photo: Shutterstock © Shutterstock Any change to the airspace now controlled by Singapore would affect Changi Airport’s operations. Photo: Shutterstock

When Indonesian President Joko Widodo met with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad earlier this month, one item of discussion was on Jakarta’s flight information region (FIR), according to a statement put out by Kuala Lumpur after the meeting.

There were no further details given on the discussion but last month, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told local media that Jakarta and Singapore had made "significant progress” on Indonesia’s bid to reclaim control of the FIR over the Riau Islands. The FIR is a section of Indonesian airspace that is managed by the city state.

Singapore has been in control of flights above some areas of the province – such as Batam, Tanjung Pinang, Bintan and the Natuna Islands – since 1946. This was approved by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), that felt the island nation would be able to ensure high standards of safety and efficiency.

But Widodo, who will embark on his second term from October, has given his administration a directive to claim back the FIR by the time his second – and final term – ends in 2024.

Why does Indonesia want to reclaim the Riau Islands FIR?

Critics of the current set-up, including former Indonesian Air Force Chief of Staff Chappy Hakim, have asked how a large country – Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s only trillion-dollar economy – could allow a smaller country at its border to oversee its airspace.

Chappy repeated his stance, thought to be the view of others in the Indonesian defence establishment, on August 17 when he launched his book on Indonesia’s FIR in the Riau Islands.

Singapore’s control of the Riau Islands FIR means the Indonesian armed forces cannot practise freely in its own sovereign territory, he said.

"Let me give you an analogy. In our own home, we cannot move freely and need permission from our neighbour. But our neighbour can move freely because it has the authority to do so.”

Aviation observer and official at the Indonesian ombudsman Alvin Lie believes that the archipelago nation is well-equipped to manage its own FIR.

Over the last few years, it has ramped up its infrastructure such as more airports, invested in new radars and new systems of navigational services, as well as provided more training for new air traffic controllers, Lie said.

Acknowledging that while the country operated fewer flights in the past, he said: "Indonesia has [since] developed its own capability of providing navigational services, for domestic flights especially, instead of being dependent on Singapore to provide the service.”

In addition, Indonesia has long managed its own FIRs in the others parts of its archipelago and in fact, its FIR management extends into some areas of East Timor and Australia’s Christmas Island airspace, he said.

How have airspace issues affected Singapore’s bilateral relationships?

The two countries were embroiled in a tit-for-tat spat in 2015, when the Indonesian Air Force complained Singapore’s fighter jet drills had violated Indonesian airspace, as a separate bilateral military pact that allows such activities expired in 2001 and had not been renewed. In turn, Singapore also protested the presence of Indonesian military aircraft in the area.

Brian Harding, deputy director and fellow at the Southeast Asia Programme of Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), noted that Indonesia’s interest to reclaim the airspace "reflects its strong impulse to exercise sovereignty”.

Aviation law professor Alan Tan from the National University of Singapore (NUS) said politics, nationalism and sovereignty "lurk in the background, and that reality simply has to be acknowledged and managed”.

Tensions also flared between Malaysia and Singapore when, in December, Kuala Lumpur said it wanted to reclaim the management of its airspace in southern state of Johor, which was delegated to Singapore in 1974. It cited concerns over sovereignty and national interest.

Specifically, Malaysia was concerned by Singapore’s new instrument landing system at its secondary Seletar Airport, which required planes to take a flight path over Johor – a move it said could affect residents, businesses and a seaport there.

Both countries reached a consensus on the issue in April this year, with Singapore agreeing to suspend instrument landing system procedures at its Seletar Airport, while Malaysia said it would open up a restricted area near the countries’ border.

What is Singapore’s position on airspace management?

Singapore has always maintained that the issue of FIR control should not be about sovereignty but rather about safety and efficiency in managing commercial air traffic.

In March, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan told Parliament that the region had "benefited greatly” from Singapore providing air traffic services.

In its own FIR, Singapore managed 740,000 flights and only about half originated from or ended up at Changi Airport. The rest were for flights arriving or departing airports in the region.

NUS’ Tan said any change to the airspace now controlled by Singapore would affect Changi Airport’s operations, given the heavy traffic that requires "in-depth attention”.

Flights "line up in or almost immediately enter foreign airspace once they are airborne” due to Singapore’s small physical size and airspace, he said.

"An efficient FIR regime that provides for orderly traffic coming in to land or taking off at Changi is thus critical to Singapore’s aviation interests,” he added.

Jack Patel, a professor at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Asia), warned that the Singapore airspace is already heavily congested. "Any further narrowing of this tight corridor might be problematic as it causes a funnel effect, which could possibly lead to delays or even an increased risk of airborne collisions,” he said.

These factors may threaten Singapore’s status as a "premier regional hub” against a backdrop of increased competition with other major hubs such as Hong Kong and Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, added Patel.

Singapore officials have expressed concern that any change to the republic’s air hub status will hit its trade-reliant economy.

Could there be any compromise?

Some observers have floated the possibility of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) being set up for the purpose of state defence and security, so that Indonesia would be immediately aware of unscheduled aircraft that had entered the section of airspace it does not manage.

Tan of NUS pointed that there would be minimal impact, so long as the enforcement of an ADIZ is consistent with international law and the right of aircraft to exercise archipelagic sea lanes passage through designated air routes.

It would also not ordinarily affect the operations of scheduled aircraft such as commercial airlines, which already have the necessary flight approvals, he added.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at NUS, said Indonesia should be aware that wanting to reclaim its FIR could be a double-edged sword.

The Jokowi government is taking "a political gamble” because "if it is not up to par in ensuring air safety, it could politically backfire on the administration domestically,” said Izzuddin.

"Conversely, if the Jokowi government is up to the mark, an increase in political mileage awaits it domestically,” he added.

So what’s expected to happen next?

Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry acting spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said it was a "very positive” sign that both parties are now "moving towards a different kind of level of discussion.”

"Previously the discussion was mainly at the technical level, but now (both) foreign ministers have already touched the issue, so it’s a good development. There is a need to have more discussions for both sides,” he said.

"While Indonesia almost always seeks to very clearly stand on principle, it can also often be flexible in terms of implementation,” said Harding, who previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defence (Policy) at the Pentagon as country director for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

Ultimately, "in the spirit of good neighbourliness, the most favoured diplomatic permutation is for Indonesia to work together with Singapore in managing the airspace,” said Izzuddin of ISAS.

In this regard, Jokowi can "demonstrate to the Indonesian domestic populace that his government can safeguard the country’s sovereignty while for Singapore, being involved means it can have greater assurance that safety of the airspace continues to be upheld,” he added.

As freedom of the air is "geopolitically critical” for a small state like Singapore, it should keep a close watch to ensure that Singapore’s multicultural fabric and harmony is not affected by "unwarranted nationalism spilling over from neighbouring countries,” said Izzuddin.

"If the airspace is governed by international aviation standards and existing bilateral agreements in which Singapore is not denied the use of neighbouring airspace, I don’t think it would matter which country manages the airspace so long as safety is not compromised and efficiency of air traffic is not undermined,” he added.

Indonesia’s Lie was "optimistic” the countries would be able to resolve any differences and work out amicable solutions.

"This FIR is a tiny issue, not even a strategic issue … I believe the government of both countries appreciate each other’s position and will try to accommodate as much as possible,” he said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. 

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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