Will Indonesia ‘descend’ into dispute in the South China Sea?

Will Indonesia ‘descend’ into dispute in the South China Sea?

The stand-off between Indonesia and China in disputed waters off the Natuna Islands may not be all it seems, writes Gatra Priyandita

Great power tensions in the South China Sea have continued to increase this year, as China inches closer to its objective of de facto control of the sea, and the US begins regularising its ‘freedom of navigation’ operations there.

Beyond great power tensions, China now seems to be facing increasing opposition from another power—Indonesia—on the ‘Nine-Dash Lines’ overlap with waters off its Natuna Islands.

While Indonesia is not officially a claimant in the disputes, it has not prevented Chinese fishing vessels from clashing with the Indonesian coast guard recently. In 2016 alone, there were three clashes between Indonesian and Chinese vessels that led to diplomatic tensions.

The Indonesian government, under the presidency of Joko Widodo/Jokowi, has been adamant about asserting Indonesian sovereignty in territorial waters and clamping down on illegal fishing, often putting it at odds with China.

The latest sign of Indonesian posturing surrounds the renaming of the northern reaches of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zones near the Natuna Islands as the ‘North Natuna Sea’.

What does this symbolic gesture mean? Is it a sign that Indonesia is inching closer to become a claimant in the SCS disputes?

North Natuna Sea Saga

In July 2017, the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs released an updated map of the Indonesian archipelago, which featured a new name for the northern reaches of its EEZ in the SCS. The updated map featured several new features, including an extension of its EEZ bordering Palau, but the North Natuna Sea gained the most press attention.

Indonesia’s low-profile resistance to China’s overlapping claims

Jakarta justified it as a matter of cartographic clarity for both maritime law enforcement and the wider community interested in exploiting the sea’s resources. The continental shelf surrounding the islands already uses names like North Natuna Block and the South Natuna Block, so the renaming was pitched as a move to align existing designations of oil and gas investment areas with the continental shelf.

Despite this justification, observers were quick to point out that the renaming was a low-profile resistance to China’s overlapping claims with Indonesia.

Although Beijing was quick to call the renaming ‘meaningless’, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sent a diplomatic note to the Indonesian embassy in Beijing on 25 August saying the renaming was not conducive to the ‘healthy and stable’ bilateral relationship.

Moreover, the diplomatic note highlighted for the first time that there is a maritime territorial overlap between Indonesia and China. Despite calls by Beijing to revert the name of the North Natuna Sea, Indonesian officials have ignored these requests, justifying the renaming as a domestic matter.

Reluctant neighbours

While the renaming of the North Natuna Sea is significant, it seems to be in line with Indonesia’s occasional symbolic show of force to challenge potential Chinese ambitions in its waters.

Chinese maps featuring its infamous Nine-Dash Line often had one dash overlapping with Indonesian waters just off the Natuna Islands.

Indonesian officials have long questioned where exactly this overlap lies and are often curious as to whether the dashed lines fell above or below the Natuna Islands.

As the Nine-Dash Line has no legal basis, Indonesia has chosen not to recognise any territorial dispute. In dealing with it, Indonesia has instead opted to go through ASEAN and has long advocated a legally-binding regional Code of Conduct that would construct a rules-based framework disciplined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and a hypothesised common interest in regional peace and security.

Indonesia launched the biggest military exercise in its history around the Natuna Islands

The Jokowi administration has continued the long pursuit of a Code of Conduct, but it has also taken a firmer stance than other post-Suharto administrations in reasserting Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty in the SCS.

It has also invested heavily to improve economic and military infrastructure in and around the Natuna Islands, including US$486 million spent on upgrading its military base there. In October last year, Indonesia launched the biggest military exercise in its history around the islands.

Illegal fishing

The biggest change in government policy surrounds the issue of illegal fishing.

While Indonesia has no official territorial overlap with China, there is a recognised fishing dispute between them. This dispute has been a source of contention with China under Jokowi, who came to power promising to protect and develop Indonesia’s maritime resources, including clamping down on illegal fishing.

The fishing dispute came to the fore in a series of incidents in 2016, when Indonesian and Chinese maritime vessels faced a showdown over the arrests of Chinese fishing vessels trespassing in seas off the Natuna Islands. Most notable of these incidents was in March, when Chinese coast guard vessels forcibly freed Chinese fishing vessels captured for trespassing in Indonesian waters.

Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti—famous for blowing up captured illegal fishing vessels—accused China of undermining Indonesia’s war against illegal fishing, and threatened to take the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Pudjiastuti’s statements were not condoned by the Foreign Ministry or Presidential Palace and ignited a public debate amongst Indonesian policymakers and the wider public over how Indonesia should respond to Chinese incursions. These debates precipitated the most serious diplomatic rift between Indonesia and China in recent years, as the Indonesian government was under increasing domestic pressure to respond more assertively.

Eventually, Pudjiastuti remained silent on the issue and Jokowi sent then-Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, Luhut Panjaitan, to China to mitigate tensions. Reportedly, Jokowi instructed Luhut to remember that China remained an important trade and investment partner.

This detail highlights the importance of economics in dealing with security matters.

Jokowi’s economic agenda has focussed on attracting infrastructure investment. He has been keen to court foreign investors to take part in funding the US$450 billion needed to develop Indonesia’s poor infrastructure.

Indonesia is prevented from taking a more assertive stance which could affect its economic relationship with China

China’s push to fund infrastructure projects through its Maritime Silk Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is seen by Jakarta as a significant opportunity to secure funding on better terms than on the private market.

It is unclear whether China has ever leveraged its economic influence to pressure Indonesia to change policy. Yet, the Jokowi administration has been very careful not to make a show of its dispute with China, fearing that doing so would anger Beijing and affect incoming Chinese investments, as well as inflame nationalist sentiments back home demanding a more assertive foreign policy.

To deal with the SCS disputes, Jokowi has opted to take unilateral symbolic action—like holding a cabinet meeting onboard a battleship in the Natuna Sea in 2016, and the North Natuna Sea name change—rather than, like Vietnam and the Philippines, becoming directly vocal and critical of Chinese actions.

Indonesia is prevented from taking a more assertive stance, as officials are fearful it could affect its economic relationship with China.

What’s the future?

Barring events that could drive Indonesian elite consensus to see China as a threat to its national security (such as revelations that the Nine-Dash Line does go below the Natuna Islands) and/or a failure by Chinese investment to deliver on expectations, it is still unlikely that Indonesia will move beyond its comfortable position as a non-claimant in SCS disputes.

The naming of the North Natuna Sea is a symbolic act that many other countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have taken in asserting sovereignty over their maritime domain.

Unlike Hanoi and Manila, Jakarta has opted to forego the public rhetoric that normally accompanies unilateral actions, due to fears of economic and perhaps even military backlash.

We are unlikely to see Indonesia ‘descend’ into the SCS disputes and become any more ‘assertive’ than it already is.

Featured image: IPhoto by jauzax on Unsplash

Gatra Priyandita is a doctoral candidate specialising in Indonesian foreign policy and international relations in the Indo-Pacific at the Australian National University.

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