Why Indonesia is reaffirming its position on the South China Sea and turning down China's offer for bilateral talks
JAKARTA: Amid recent activities in the South China Sea, the Indonesian government has reiterated its position on the rule of international law through diplomatic notes addressed to the United Nations, while declining China's offer to hold bilateral talks on overlapping claims.
In a diplomatic note dated May 26, Indonesia reiterated that it is not a party to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. It added that the nine-dash line map which China uses as a basis for its claims in the waters lacks an international legal basis.
Beijing responded by sending a diplomatic note pointing out that there is no territorial dispute between China and Indonesia in the South China Sea.
The note on Jun 2 also said: “However, China and Indonesia have overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests in some parts of the South China Sea.
"China is willing to settle the overlapping claims through negotiation and consultation with Indonesia, and work together with Indonesia to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
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Speaking at a press conference on Jun 4, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi said the country’s position on the South China Sea is crystal clear and consistent.
She said that in Indonesia's note, Jakarta wanted to reiterate its consistent position, in response to Chinese claims at the UN that it has historic rights in the South China Sea which may affect Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“Our diplomatic note to the UN on May 26 reiterated our objections among others to the so-called nine-dash line or so-called historic rights.
“In that diplomatic note, Indonesia also called for full compliance towards UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) 1982,” Mdm Marsudi said referring to the law which China has ratified.
Indonesia then issued another note dated Jun 12, which rebuffed the offer of talks with the Chinese. There is no legal reasoning under international law to conduct negotiations on maritime boundaries delimitation with China, said the Indonesian note.
The note added: "No historic rights exist in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China. Should there be any historic rights existing prior to the entry into force of UNCLOS 1982, those rights were superseded by the provisions of UNCLOS 1982.”
In a press conference on Thursday (Jun 18), Mdm Marsudi said that the Jun 12 note was meant to "further reiterate our consistent position that under UNCLOS 1982, there are no such overlapping claims".
"For this reason, there is nothing to negotiate.”
This is not the first time Indonesia has sent diplomatic notes to the UN regarding the South China Sea as it has previously sent a similar note in 2010. Then, Indonesia also said that the nine-dashed line map has no legal basis.
JAKARTA WANTS TO SHOW IT HAS A CONSISTENT APPROACH: ANALYST
International relations expert Teuku Rezasyah told CNA: “I think Indonesia is quite confident in stating its position to the UN … This is the peaceful way of expressing concern, this is a diplomatic way of Indonesia’s positioning.
“Secondly, Indonesia needs to inform China that it is consistent … And to show its consistency, it is dealing with this issue on various levels, at the unilateral level, at the bilateral level, regional level and also global level," said the scholar from the University of Padjajaran in Bandung city.
He also believed that Indonesia is strengthening its position.
“I think it’s about time for China to see how serious Indonesia is with its position. It has been doing that by integrating a seaport and airport in the Natuna, and it has redesigned its harbour there,” Mr Rezasyah added.
Given the current situation, the diplomatic route is the best method Indonesia can use to reaffirm its position, added security and defence analyst Yohanes Sulaiman.
Being united with the other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states would also make Indonesia and the bloc stronger, he said.
“I think it would make China think twice if Southeast Asian countries are united. And that is also the main reason why China always keeps claiming that any problem with the South China Sea should be solved bilaterally and not multilaterally.
“Because they don’t want the Southeast Asian countries to unite to challenge it,” said Mr Sulaiman who is with the University of Jenderal Achmad Yani in West Java.
China claims much of the South China Sea, but there are overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Washington and its allies have also challenged Beijing’s territorial claims.
There have been recent signs of tensions in the South China Sea amid the COVID-19 situation. The US Navy said its guided-missile destroyer had sailed through waters near the Paracel islands, challenging China's claim to the area.
There have also been reports that a Chinese government survey ship was "tagging" an exploration vessel operated by Petronas in the South China Sea.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for calm in the South China Sea and reaffirmed Malaysia's commitment to peace in the disputed waters.
READ: Malaysia needs to pay attention to increased activities by big powers in the South China Sea, says the king
Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea but it has clashed with China over fishing rights around Natuna Islands, which is at the southern part of the disputed waters.
Last December, Chinese fishing boats and guards entered the Natuna waters and as a result, Mdm Marsudi summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta.
Indonesia then deployed warships and fighter jets to Natuna and after several days of stand-off, President Joko Widodo visited the area, followed by the departure of the Chinese vessels.
The incident was not new as Indonesia also clashed with China over fishing rights in the same region in 2016, which Indonesia subsequently renamed to the North Natuna Sea in 2017.
FISHERY RESOURCES IN NATUNA CENTRAL TO INDONESIA'S INTERESTS
At the heart of Indonesia's interests in the South China Sea are fishery resources in the Natuna.
Head of Natuna’s fishermen alliance Hendri, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said that for years foreign fishing vessels have been operating in the Natuna waters.
“The problem didn’t used to be so serious because their fishing grounds were different from ours. There was minimum conflict as they were situated beyond 100 miles (from Natuna’s coast)," he recounted.
”But since five years ago, it has become a big problem which bothers us Natuna fishermen, because there are more foreign fishing vessels entering our waters and they are even fishing 50 miles from Natuna’s coast,” the 48-year-old man claimed.
He said there is not much the Indonesian fishermen can do with their traditional wooden boats of maximum 25GT (Gross Tonnage), while the illegal foreign fishing vessels are bigger with a capacity of more than 100GT.
The Natuna fishermen are also still using traditional fishing rods, as compared to foreign vessels that usually use trawls.
“We cannot drive them out because there are only a few Natuna fishermen there while there are many of them and they are even guarded by their coast guards.
“They approach the Natuna fishermen as if they want to crash into them. If that happens, the Natuna fishermen have no option other than to sail away and find a new fishing ground where there are no foreign fishing vessels,” Mr Hendri told CNA.
The Indonesian government is well aware of the issues on the ground.
During Indonesia's recent stand-off with China, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs Mahfud MD claimed that Chinese vessels had entered the Indonesian waters because “we are less present there".
Meanwhile, there have been efforts to develop the fishing industry in Natuna.
“We have designed some programmes for 2020, among others to protect and enhance the competitiveness of the fishermen by providing insurance and facilitate them to gain access to capital and banking,” Mr Ridwan Mulyana, the director who is responsible for licensing and fishery services at the marine and fisheries ministry, told CNA.
In October 2019, an integrated marine and fisheries centre was inaugurated in Natuna and the ministry is planning to expand it.
But the programmes are currently facing financial constraints as the money has been redirected towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Mulyana said, though the ministry is still hopeful that a recent agreement with Japan to build a fish market in Natuna will follow through.
Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, the foreign ministry's acting spokesman Teuku Faizasyah also reiterated that according to international law, Natuna belongs to Indonesia. However, active fishery and development are needed to show that Indonesia is present in Natuna and that it belongs to the country, he added.
STATUS QUO ON THE GROUND
Meanwhile, the Indonesian military is mindful of the recent tensions in the South China Sea but has yet to deploy additional forces to Natuna.
The navy has around four vessels in the Natuna waters and the air force, as well as the army, have their personnel in the area, said Commander Fajar Tri Rohadi, a Public Affairs Officer with the First Fleet Command of the Indonesia Navy.
“We are still patrolling like usual, there’s nothing special about that.
“Having said that, we must always be alert. Everyone must be highly alert because we never know what will happen, especially in areas where there is something unresolved and (there are) mutual claims,” Commander Rohadi added.