Commentary | 03 December 2016

Jakarta steers its own course

Aaron L. Connelly writes in The Australian Financial Review on Indonesia's tough stance on its territorial waters. 

Aaron L. Connelly writes in The Australian Financial Review on Indonesia's tough stance on its territorial waters. 

To celebrate 71 years of independence in August, the Indonesian government announced it would sink 71 foreign vessels it had caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has made a campaign against illegal foreign fishing fleets a key plank in his nationalist economic development program, and the policy of sinking those caught is among his government's most popular initiatives.

But when Independence Day came around on August 17, only 60 boats were sunk. The government reported that 11 were held back at the last minute because their legal processes had not yet been completed. But, in fact, several were saved because they flew the Chinese flag before they were seized.

In the campaign against illegal fishing and other matters, Indonesia under Jokowi has become increasingly wary of offending Beijing, as China has increased its investment in Jokowi's top priority, an ambitious $450 billion portfolio of infrastructure investments.

The Indonesian National Development Planning Agency estimates the Indonesian government can only provide for a third of that total, and many projects have struggled to attract funding on the private market because of Indonesia's reputation for inefficiency and corruption. Jokowi has turned to Beijing to fill the gap.

Many Chinese infrastructure investments in Indonesia, as part of its One Belt One Road program, may be primarily motivated by economic factors, including China's desire to make Chinese equipment the regional standard. But it has also paid political dividends.

This is most apparent in the South China Sea, where Indonesia has gone from an active diplomatic actor seeking a peaceful resolution to maritime disputes in the area, to one primarily focused on protecting its own narrow interests around Indonesia's Natuna Islands at the far southern end of the sea.

As part of this shift, Jokowi's government has reinforced and stepped up patrols around the Natunas, leading to three incidents this year in which Indonesian and Chinese military and law enforcement vessels faced off over fishing rights in the area. Jokowi flew to the Natunas and boarded an Indonesian naval vessel to demonstrate his commitment to Indonesia's sovereignty.

These incidents may have given the impression that Indonesia is getting tough on China. But at the same time, Indonesia has resiled from the active diplomatic role it played under Jokowi's predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in seeking to keep its neighbours united as they face down an increasingly assertive China to their north.

While Yudhoyono's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, was famous for shuttle diplomacy that preserved consensus among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the South China Sea issue, Jokowi has been reluctant to authorise similar efforts by his own Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi. The President has even stepped in to edit the foreign ministry's statements on the South China Sea to ensure they do not antagonise Beijing. Even absent of Chinese investment, Indonesia was never likely to push back on Beijing's behaviour in as strong or forthright a manner as the United States and others would have preferred; Indonesia guards its reputation for non-alignment zealously. Under Yudhoyono, too, Indonesia was keen to ensure it was not perceived to be anti-Chinese. But within the framework of non-alignment, Indonesia nevertheless played a key role in presenting a united front in negotiations with China, a role it has now left behind.

The improvement in Sino-Indonesian relations may not last. Beijing's gains may yet be squandered if Chinese firms cannot deliver infrastructure projects on time, on budget, and without importing Chinese labour - all challenges that have marred past Chinese infrastructure investments, and which the results-oriented Jokowi will consider severely.

But at present, Jokowi seems content to solicit Chinese infrastructure investment and go it alone in the South China Sea: taking a tough stance on Indonesia's narrow interests around Natuna, while avoiding confrontation in the broader diplomatic disputes with China.

That is unfortunate, because as Chinese behaviour grows more assertive, the region needs Indonesian diplomatic leadership now more than ever. But more importantly, it is unlikely to protect Indonesian interests in a lasting way, as Beijing's military and economic capabilities in the region continue to grow relative to those of Jakarta and other individual south-east Asian countries.