Indonesia, China and the growing troubles in South China Sea

Assertive behavior from China, with Indonesia covering up a Chinese incursion is indicative of growing troubles in the region

Indonesia, China and the growing troubles in South China Sea

Mohamad Radytio - Indonesia

Indonesia and China got involved in a naval standoff in the latest South China Sea (SCS) conflict. In the month of March, a Chinese fishing vessel entered Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around Natunas, this comes within the Indonesian territory based on its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) rules on its maritime border. Therefore, it is natural for Indonesia to see this as an intrusion of its maritime borders and authorities quickly dispatched its coast guard vessel to check the incursion. As the Indonesian ship approached toward the Chinese fishing vessel, they saw that a Chinese ship, a small fishing vessel approaching them. Indonesian coast guard spared no time in stopping the fishing boat and arrested its Chinese crew. As the first incident happened, the small Chinese coast guard ship had rammed the fishing boat, attempted to prevent the Indonesian coast guard from towing the ship to the nearby Indonesian port. The Indonesian coast guard, to prevent further escalation turn into serious confrontation, decided to let the fishing boat afloat in the open sea and ordered to bring the arrested fishermen into Natunas. However, soon after a bigger Chinese Navy ship intercepted the Indonesian coast guard vessel, with its captain demanding the arrested fishermen to be released. What happened next was an embarrassment for many in Indonesia.

Not only had the Chinese officials denied they have illegally entered into Indonesian maritime territory, they audaciously claimed that it was the Indonesian coast guard that harassed their citizens in the Chinese water. The more embarrassing point in this incident was the response from the Indonesian officials, the way adopted to defuse the crisis and their subsequent reactions. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla went into press conference saying the Chinese did not intended to claim Natunas islands and essentially explained that Sino-Indonesia relationship is ‘strong as ever’. Some uproar, from both government and opposition sides arise, with many accused the Vice President trying to cover-up the real problem, criticizing government’s lack of strong response and inadequate border control. It is after these uproars that forced Indonesian government to demonstrate a relatively strong response, subsequently Indonesian Fisheries and Maritime minister Susi Pudjiastuti summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta and threatened to bring the matter into the international court in Hague if the incursion repeated again.

Response from other state officials afterward remained normative, with Indonesian Chief of Naval Staff assures public of their capability to guard Indonesian territory and President Joko Widodo ‘Jokowi’ commenting on the incident as ‘unacceptable’. Yet, there was a little follow up after this incident, with officials keep emphasizing “strong relationship” narrative between China and Indonesia. It raises suspicion; with parliament vice speaker Fadli Zon from opposition alleged Chinese loans and investments spread the mesh around Indonesian government’s reactions. Indeed, in 2015 alone China had signed many agreements pledging 800 trillion Rupiahs-worth investment ( USD 60-65 billions ) for various projects in Indonesia, including infrastructure projects that originated from Jokowi’s campaign pledges. In all likelihood there is a possibility that Jokowi’s government choose to formulate a normative or soft response for the sake of these huge Chinese investments. His party (PDI-P)’s closeness with Communist Party of China could also be one of the reason for his meek response toward China in general.

It is also true that Indonesia is not embroiled in the rival claims with China over the South China Sea and has instead presents itself as an "honest broker" in disputes between China and the other claimants in the SCS dispute the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Officially China also does not dispute Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna Islands. Even with its non-confrontationist policy Indonesia is still an interested party since China’s nine-dash line slightly overlaps with the EEZ around Indonesia’s resource-rich Natuna Islands, a point that has long miffed Jakarta.

After the March incident Indonesian lawmakers have begun reiterating the importance of the construction of a military base in the Natunas. Though this military base construction plan has been in the discussion from last few years, the Chinese actions have increased Indonesian threat perceptions and provided these initiatives even more momentum. In the wake of fishing boat incident the Indonesian military has started deploying marines, air force special force units, an army battalion, frigates, a new radar system and drones at the Natuna islands.

However, judging from the Chinese violations to other South China Sea countries, specifically for territorial sea violation, Chinese behavior is hegemonic, with attempt to show-off their strength and supremacy yet Dragon’s conduct with Indonesia has been least aggressive. The Chinese claim almost 90 % of South China Sea territories totally disregarding other countries earlier claims and legal ownerships (China only started to claim around 90 % of South China Sea territory during Chiang Kai Sek’s nationalist government in Taiwan). China would not opt for big and direct military confrontation to strengthen claims on this territories for balance of power consideration (U.S. backing of Philippines and Taiwan ) , but as long as these countries and ASEAN in particular do not put a unified stance in responding Chinese violations, it is hard to see Chinese violations and unilateral claims to stop.






Güncelleme Tarihi: 30 Mayıs 2016, 12:08