Over the past quarter century, Indonesia has sought to play the role of an honest broker in the South China Sea disputes, facilitating negotiations over a proposed Code of Conduct for claimants to the sea, and hosting workshops on technical issues and other barriers to cooperation. These efforts, though admirable, are no longer equal to the challenge presented by Chinese actions, which now pose a much broader risk to Indonesian interests.
Since 2013, Beijing has constructed three large air bases and four smaller islands on top of coral reefs in the South China Sea, and has begun to place military personnel and weapons systems on them. The total area reclaimed is 15 times greater than that of Merdeka Square, and far greater than that reclaimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
China’s increased presence will help it to enforce its maritime claims for example, by pressuring other claimants to allow Chinese fleets to fish in their waters, or by restricting the operation of foreign survey vessels in international waters.
Were it not for the United States’ Navy’s continued presence in the area, Beijing would be close to achieving a dominant position in nearby waters.
Such extensive Chinese maritime claims, encompassed by Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” have no basis under international law. When China had an opportunity to offer arguments in support of its claims before an arbitral tribunal in The Hague from 2013 to 2016, its fundamentals were so flawed that the Chinese leadership chose not to mount a case.
The tribunal’s decision dismissing the claims is now international law, yet Beijing continues to disregard it.
These developments have security implications for Indonesia. The new Chinese airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, built to accommodate military jets, is 1,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland in Hainan, but only 750 km from Indonesian territory in the Natunas.
Standoffs between Indonesian and Chinese security forces in the waters around the Natunas have increased as Chinese fishermen sail further and further south in search of a catch, backed up by a bigger and more aggressive Chinese Coast Guard.
Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia has responded to these developments in a robust but narrow way, reinforcing the Indonesian base on Natuna Besar, seizing two Chinese vessels found fishing illegally in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) last year, and seeking to accelerate economic development in the waters around Natuna. The president’s two visits to Ranai last year left no doubt as to Indonesia’s claim to the islands.
These are important steps that will help protect Indonesian territory and maritime rights in the short-term. But it is not clear that they will prove a durable deterrent in the long term, as the People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard grow increasingly powerful relative to Indonesia’s much smaller maritime forces.
Moreover, these steps will do little to address broader concerns about the nature of Chinese statecraft as China rises. Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea has always been characterized by a pattern of “talk and take,” as then Philippine defense secretary Orlando Mercado first put it two decades ago.
But since 2013 we have seen much more taking than talking.
China has worked through its client, Cambodia, to block tougher language by ASEAN on the situation, and it refuses to countenance a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior, disregard for international law, and refusal to negotiate in good faith portend more serious problems in the future.
As I have argued in a recent Lowy Institute Analysis, “Going it Alone” (available in English and Indonesian), it is time for Indonesia to define its interests in the South China Sea more broadly than in the past, by seeking not only to defend Indonesian territorial integrity in the short term, but also to lead the region in shaping Chinese behavior in the long-term.
Indonesia need not abandon its non-claimant status or honest broker role to do so, but it does need to take a much stronger stand in support of international law.
Jokowi and Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi could start by clearly and repeatedly articulating an expectation that China will adhere to the arbitral tribunal’s award in Philippines v. China, and end its use of the “nine-dash line” to outline China’s claims.
Doing so would give cover to other countries in the region to take a similar stand on behalf of international law, and — given critical mass over a sustained period — could lead China to reconsider its position.
Indonesians might reasonably ask why this duty should fall to them. After all, Indonesia is not a claimant like Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines; and the US has been active in challenging Chinese expansion and militarization of the South China Sea.
They might also worry that doing so would lead to the perception that Indonesia was taking sides in a dispute between China and the US. Indonesia could lie low and allow those on the front lines, like the Philippines and Vietnam, and great powers like the US, to take the lead on these issues.
But while taking a stand now could lead to tension with Beijing in the short term, it will lead to a more stable, peaceful region in the future.
Moreover, would it not contravene the spirit of a bebas aktif (independent and active) foreign policy to leave smaller, developing nations to the mercy of the great powers, or to leave the great powers to settle these issues themselves?
And would it not contravene the spirit of a bebas aktif foreign policy to allow Chinese anger to exercise a veto over Indonesian action?
Indonesia should maintain non-alignment between the great powers by rowing between two reefs, as founding father Mohammad Hatta said, but it must also be prepared to adjust its course if one of the great powers constructs an artificial reef ahead of it.
Indonesia is the only country in the region with the requisite moral authority and capacity for leadership on these issues. In the long-term, only principled and persistent Indonesian diplomacy can prompt the changes in Chinese behavior that will secure Indonesian territorial integrity and regional stability.