China’s South China Sea Talks Offer: Why Indonesia Should be Hesitant?

A contradictory stand to its own rhetoric of prioritizing ‘negotiation over disputes’, Indonesia has turned down a Chinese offer of talks on the South China Sea. Jakarta rejected any discussion on the issue given that the country does not have any overlapping claims with Beijing over economic zones. Mr. Damos Dumoli Agusman, Director General of International Law and Treaties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “Based on 1982 UNCLOS Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with the PRC, so it is not relevant to hold any dialogue on maritime boundary delimitation,”

An academic with Yogyakarta-based Gajah Mada University, I Made Andi Arsana reiterated and concurred with the government’s position and observed that Indonesia’s claim is based on international law while China’s is unilateral. Similarly, Hikmahanto Juwana, an international relations professor at the University of Indonesia reportedly said Indonesia should never allow itself to be lured into any discussions with China over maritime spaces.

While Indonesia’s position is acceptable but China’s offer to discuss maritime issues merits discussion. There are several reasons worthy to ponder over Indonesia-China relations particularly on maritime issues. Indonesia has no claim over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands though it is a littoral state of the South China Sea. But, Indonesia and China have fishing issues to solve. The problem has been consistently pushing both sidesto the brink of open military clashin the South China Sea and the most recent one took place in January this year.The tension ended up as usual; Jakarta withdrew its warships and jetfighters while Beijing pulled out its Coast Guard vessel that escorted Chinese fishing armada poaching Indonesia’s waters. Earlier, in 2016, both sides were involved in a standoff over the same issue and at the same spot; a similar “settlement”course was chosen. However, the underlying problem, has remained unsolved.

Within this context, China’s offer of talk maybe construed as its effort to seek a permanent solution with Indonesia on illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing activities and strengthen maritime ties specifically in research sector which suffered under draconian policy pursued by President Joko Widodo’s administration during his first term at the office. Looking at the way Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry selected words in its letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres in response to Indonesia’s diplomatic note, Beijing’sintention is quite interesting. According to media, the Chinese government acknowledged that it had no territorial dispute with Indonesia but said the two countries had overlapping claims over maritime rights in parts of the South China Sea.

‘Maritime rights’ is indeed of an important issue on which 1982 UNCLOS is highly attentive by providing a bunch of provisions on how the rights obtained by States, even for countries that have no beachor are landlocked. It also made clear that any dispute arising from the rights execution by States should be negotiated bilaterally or brought to the third parties like the court, arbitration panel or tribunal. The Convention has established a tribunal to handle dispute among States concerning the Law of the Sea, namely the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany.

That is why China eagerly proposes direct negotiation with Indonesia, avoiding the involvement of third parties such as its dispute with the Philippines. As is widely known, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines concerning certain issues in the South China Sea including the legality of China’s ‘Nine-dash Line’. Beijing simply said that, based on regulations, the legal standing of the case was weak and it therefore would not participate in the arbitration, making the ruling inapplicable.

From an economic perspective, the country is apparently aware that unstable maritime relations could be politicized by some local groups in Indonesia to trigger anti-China sentiment, jeopardizing the well-established economic cooperation between Jakarta and Beijing. Such feeling was easily played when the two countries were involved in tensions at the South China Sea. That time, thousands of demonstrators protested outside the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta demanding Indonesian government to declare the Chinese ambassador persona non grata. The national media was full of adversecomments on China-Indonesia business relationship.

Indonesia’s rejection to any negotiation proposal on the South China Sea issue submitted by China also stems from its bad experience with Malaysia over Sipadanand Ligitan dispute.If it accepts China’s offer, there are fears that a similar nightmare might be recurring. So, it is advisable not to start discussions on the issue whatever be the consequences. This psychological traitindicates that Indonesia is not completely sure about its position on the question of Law of the Sea although it repeatedly claims that it is legally correct. Furthermore, it also exposes the legal capacity of the country to field good maritime lawyers to counter China’s claims if any. The logics can be faulty and the best way to confirm is through negotiations. Under these circumstances, there is no harm in engaging China in a dialogue over fisheries issues.

Siswanto Rusdi is Director, The National Maritime Institute, Jakarta, Indonesia

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