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Commentary: Indonesia’s high-stakes stand-off with China in the South China Sea

China may be testing waters with Indonesia, but it may get more than it bargained for, says Collin Koh.

Commentary: Indonesia’s high-stakes stand-off with China in the South China Sea

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE)

SINGAPORE: Less than a month ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi at the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Madrid, agreeing to strengthen both countries’ comprehensive strategic partnership on the back of the 70th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations.

Around the same time, Indonesian defence minister Prabowo Subianto visited Beijing, with an eye on obtaining Chinese help in modernising the country’s military.

Atmospherics were warm and relations between China and Indonesia cordial if not unmistakably positive.

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Then came the latest kerfuffle between the two countries in waters off Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands which China has claimed are its “traditional fishing grounds”. In mid-December, Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels were found escorting numerous Chinese fishing boats operating within the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off Ranai.


Jakarta swiftly scrambled to respond to this new transgression. Indonesia issued a strong protest, invoking the Permanent Court of Arbitration award on the South China Sea in July 2016 which effectively invalidated Beijing’s Nine Dashed Line claim.

President Joko Widodo also unequivocally declared that no negotiation regarding matters pertaining to sovereignty would ever be held with Beijing over Natuna.

Furthermore, he visited Natuna regency on Jan 8. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Navy beefed up its presence through eight warships to patrol and secure the Natuna waters. And the Air Force announced plans to dispatch four F-16 fighter jets to Natuna for “routine patrol”.

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These measures undertaken by Jakarta shouldn’t have come across as anything new to Beijing, which could have anticipated them as “standard” response echoing events back in 2016.

Following the incident over the Chinese fishing boat Kwey Fay in March 2016, the Widodo administration also responded swiftly – issuing official protests and beefing up forces in Natuna Islands. 

An illegal fishing vessel being blown up by the Indonesian navy in its waters. Three Malaysian fishing boats are destroyed for illegal fishing, by the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries along with the police and navy, near Langsa, Aceh. (Photo: Reuters)

In June that year, the Indonesian Navy fired on a group of Chinese fishing vessels, reportedly injuring one fisherman, and detained one of the boats off Natuna – a move which Beijing condemned as “abuse of force”.

After Beijing asserted its claims, President Widodo held a cabinet meeting on board a warship in the Natuna waters. As part of Jakarta’s broader campaign to assert sovereignty over Natuna, the Indonesian Navy bolstered its presence in the area with more warships. And to add icing to the cake, in October that same year, the Indonesian Air Force staged its biggest war-game exercise over the South China Sea.


Beijing’s latest move came not long after its standoff with Vietnam in Vanguard Bank late last year, and a recent disagreement with Malaysia following the latter’s submission of an extended continental shelf claim in the South China Sea.

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It is possible this Natuna move by China was designed to test the second term in office of President Widodo’s administration following last year’s presidential election.

While bilateral ties have remained stable over the years, the Chinese claim in Indonesia’s EEZ since 2016 has not gone away. And Beijing might have reason to believe that the newly-constituted Widodo cabinet would be friendlier now than before when it comes to this maritime problem.

Beijing has over the years been trying to cultivate the Indonesian government, after ties improved following the 2016 incident.


Bilateral economic linkages have prospered since. China remains one of the key sources of investments for Indonesia, reaching US$2.3 billion in the first half of 2019, constituting 16.2 percent of the total foreign investment in the country.

President Widodo meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (L) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping (R) as he arrives for the APEC leaders meeting at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on Nov 11, 2014. (AFP/Greg Baker)

With infrastructure development being a critical bedrock of the Widodo administration’s electoral pledge to the Indonesian voters, China’s role in this regard appears even more indispensable.

Just early last month, Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board offered US$91.1 billion worth of infrastructure projects to Chinese investors under the Belt and Road Initiative.

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In fact, earlier last year the Widodo administration had been keen to obtain Chinese participation in the mammoth task of relocating the capital city from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. This followed an earlier proposal in July by President Widodo to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to establish a “low-interest special fund” to facilitate Chinese investments in four investment corridors within the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Chinese believe the Indonesians know what is at stake. 

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In a veiled warning on that score, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Tuesday’s press conference that “we believe Indonesia will also have in mind the bigger picture of bilateral relations and regional stability, properly resolve differences with China, and foster favourable atmosphere and conditions for celebrating the 70th anniversary of our diplomatic ties.”

And for good measure, Geng also mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative.


Perhaps buoyed by this belief, China has decided not to back down as at least four Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels continue to operate in Indonesia’s EEZ.

But there is more at stake here than just economic interests for Indonesia and perhaps Beijing has underestimated that.

Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, though acknowledging the importance of trade and investment ties with China, insisted that the country is not “selling out our sovereignty” to Beijing.

Tanjung Datuk Natuna is part of the small Natuna archipelago - remote Indonesian islands in the South China Sea, home to rich fishing grounds and abundant oil reserves AFP/MARINE AFFAIR AND FISHERIES MINISTRY

To the Indonesians, safeguarding sovereignty is a red line in the sand. As far as the new administration is concerned, there is no change to how seriously it views maritime incursions.

In particular, new Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo pledged last November to continue his predecessor Susi Pudjiastuti's hard-line stance against illegal fishing, as Indonesia’s “enemy number one”.  

If anything, this should have been a stark warning to China.

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Prabowo has urged the need to “remain cool” in Indonesia’s response to the intrusion. At the same time, the Indonesian military (TNI) believed that the intrusion was “an attempt to elicit a reaction” from it thus stressed the need to respond with caution.

“Some of their acts target to provoke us into violating the international maritime law, so that Indonesia will be the one held guilty over this matter. However, we are not provoked," Major General Sisriadi, head of the TNI Information Center, pointed out.


The stakes are high. The bigger question is for how long can Jakarta slug it out with Beijing in the Natuna waters, given the well-demonstrated staying power of the latter’s maritime forces observed in the gruelling months-long Vanguard Bank standoff with Vietnam?

And if they are forced to retreat, what will Indonesia do to regain national pride and demonstrate they can safeguard national sovereignty?

Under the watchful gaze of its constituents in Indonesia, the Widodo administration will seek to do its utmost best to assert itself in the Natuna standoff but not be baited into committing unlawful acts that China could use against it subsequently.

Are there other ways to make Beijing withdraw its vessels from the Indonesian EEZ? Notwithstanding its avowed status as a non-claimant in the South China Sea disputes, Indonesia has a key role to play in ongoing negotiations over the proposed Code of Conduct.

While not as prescriptive in its approach, unlike Vietnam, in pushing for confidence- and security-building provisions in the Single Draft Negotiating Text adopted in June 2018, Indonesia has nonetheless been pushing for a united ASEAN approach to speak as one, instead of 10 distinct parties, with China over the code.

This latest Natuna kerfuffle may inject further impetus into this effort.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesian president Joko Widodo delivers a speech during the Inauguration of the new ASEAN Secretariat Building in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 8, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

One should tamper expectations about the prospects of ASEAN unity, however, over the South China Sea issue as the divisions between member states looks set to persist as a result of divergent interests vis-à-vis other attendant priorities that underpin bilateral relations with Beijing.

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Beyond generic statements commonly put out by the 10-member bloc to urge restraint and peaceful ways to manage and resolve the South China Sea disputes, a hardened common ASEAN position against China’s use of “grey zone” coercion (using paramilitary forces) may be a bridge too far.

By placing previously aloof Indonesia into its crosshairs, Beijing has inevitably poked the hornet’s nest, potentially compounding the challenges it may face in the ongoing talks on the Code of Conduct, especially when Vietnam as the ASEAN chair is already inclined to take a harder position.

The end result could be the emergence of a loose coalition of stronger voices that speak out against China within ASEAN.

Collin Koh is research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He primarily researches on maritime security and naval affairs in Southeast Asia.

Source: CNA/ml


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