Even as the world heralded the beginning of a new year, Indonesia was taking a firm position of claiming
its rights over the North Natuna Sea (South China Sea) where China’s historical claims over the nine-
dash-line is increasingly pushing regional states to show greater assertiveness. In this recent stand-off
between Indonesia and China, Chinese fishing boats had made incursions into the coastal waters
surrounding the North Natuna Sea, a name that was unilaterally decided by Indonesia to address the
portions of the South China Sea that fall under the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Indonesia,
surrounding the regions of the Natuna Island.
The incursions by Chinese fishing boats began as early October 2019 using the oft tried Chinese method of systematically testing the weaknesses of the regional states, into how they respond to incursions in the areas claimed as the nine-dash-line. However, the current stand-off took place on 19 December 2019 when nearly 63 Chinese fishing boats with Chinese coast guard ships repelled Indonesian fishing vessels in the area pushing the boats back in their own waters. A week prior to the Chinese incursions, reports on social media suggested that violations of Indonesia’s EEZ had taken place by Vietnamese fishing vessels illegally poaching Indonesian waters. From 2014, the Indonesian Ministry for Maritime Affairs had been dealing stringently with incursions into the EEZ and the waters surrounding Indonesia by fishing boats poaching in these waters. In response to the incursions in December 2019, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut Republik Indonesia), known as Bakamla confirmed that Chinese vessels had intruded into the regional waters and had been repelled, following which a second incursion had occurred towards the end of December 2019.
In the present stand-off there are however three clear implications that are important to understand. These relate to the internal scenario within Indonesia, the manner in which its foreign policy is being recalibrated and finally its impact on the regional responses by other states towards Chinese incursions into their own regions.
One critical shift that is visible relates to how Indonesia has been able to finely balance its domestic and foreign policy demands while addressing the Chinese presence in the Natuna waters. At the domestic level the opinions of the public intellectuals were significantly shrill when the Minister for Defence mouthed platitudes of friendship with China. Given the levels of Chinese investments in Indonesia, Minister Subianto’s remarks were justified, even though China ranks as the third largest investor. This led to a more categorical comment from Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Luhut Panjaitan who stated that Indonesia would not undermine its sovereignty and national interest over the need for foreign investments. This appeal to the domestic audience was also critical in reassuring the domestic political opposition that the second term under President Joko Widodo would ensure that the state and the leadership will be critically focused on the protection of the country’s core security interests ensuring that Indonesia’s neighbours would understand its seriousness in combating any violations of its sovereignty.
On the foreign policy front Indonesia showed a more assertive position as opposed to diplomatic options that it has taken on prior incursions. On earlier occasions Indonesia was seen to be somewhat ‘soft’ on the Chinese vessels while taking a more strident stand against other countries which led to criticism within the ASEAN countries. Moreover, through regional mechanisms such as the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook which saw Indonesia take a leadership role in June 2019, there was an effort to continue Indonesia’s foreign policy of ‘dynamic equilibrium’ while practicing `pragmatic equidistance’.
This time, however, Indonesia launched two formal and strident complaints with Beijing and also summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia to convey concerns and formally object to the presence of the Chinese fishing boats in Indonesian waters. Moreover, in asserting its foreign policy Indonesia strongly reiterated its reliance and adherence to the norms established by the interstate system through the principles enshrined in the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). It made three critical accusations against the Chinese incursion – first, that this act was seen as a clear evidence of violation of Indonesia’s sovereignty; second, Indonesia completely rejected the historical claims made by the Chinese to nearly 80 percent of the South China Sea which it claims as part of the nine-dash line; and third it reiterated that such claims by China did not meet the normative standards set in place by the UNCLOS and was thereby null and void of any legality.
At the regional level there is likely to be a more assertive position resulting from the stand taken by Indonesia. ASEAN’s efforts systematically has been to address the South China Sea dispute through the ASEAN mechanisms which has been thwarted by China’s preference for a bilateral mechanism between China and the claimant countries to the dispute. Even in this case, China has not responded willingly to the Indonesian position and has stated that it rejects the findings of the PCA ruling which does not recognize the Chinese claims. However, as Indonesia’s position hardens it is likely to impact other ASEAN members, particularly countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. In the aftermath of the adjudication process by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), wherein the ruling favoured the Philippines, both Malaysia and Vietnam have even considered the PCA to address their own individual concerns relating to contested claims. As China’s hunger for resources increases in direct proportionality to its economic growth the region is likely to witness more such incursions. It will require the concerted efforts of countries both individually and collectively to address the regional `Goliath’.
Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.