CHINA SHOULDN’T SEE JAKARTA’S FRIENDSHIP AS SIGN OF WEAKNESS
IN a dramatic gesture intended to refocus China’s attention on its relations with Indonesia, President Joko Widodo visited the Natuna Islands recently.Indeed, he held a limited Cabinet meeting on board the warship KRI Imam Bonjol, which had clashed with Chinese fishing vessels in the area.
He was accompanied by several key officials, including Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, and armed forces chief Gatot Nurmantyo.
The high-powered visit underlined a core theme of Jakarta’s relations with Beijing: that Indonesia’s sovereignty is not negotiable, no matter how intense its economic relations are with China. Consequently, Indonesia will not accept rules written by other countries, even the powerful, if they are not consonant with its national interest and with international law.
Given how careful Indonesians are to not displease the Chinese, this was an amazing assertion of sovereignty.
The speed with which the Jakarta political establishment acted revealed its desire not to be caught off-guard in the lead-up to the ruling on the South China Sea dispute. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague will deliver the verdict on Tuesday.
The arbitration case has been filed by the Philippines, and Indonesia is not a claimant in the maritime dispute. However, political circles in Jakarta believe that Indonesia had been tardy in arguing its case at the International Court of Justice, which caused it to lose the Ligitan and Sipadan islands to Malaysia in 2002.
This time, China must not be left in any doubt of Indonesia’s stance on its sovereignty if Beijing erupts in fury over the arbitral ruling, which is expected to go against it.
Although not a claimant state, the archipelagic nation is being drawn into moves to challenge the status quo in the South China Sea. While China acknowledges that the Natuna Islands themselves belong to Indonesia, around 83,000 sq km of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the Natunas fall within Chinese claims, demarcated by the Nine-Dash Line.
Indonesia does not recognise the legal validity of the Nine-Dash Line. Hence its opposition to China’s coast guard and fishing fleet operating in the Natuna area on the questionable basis that the waters constitute part of China’s “traditional fishing grounds”.
The action that the KRI Imam Bonjol took against Chinese citizens caught fishing illegally reflected a strict policy against poaching that includes the sinking of foreign trawlers. At the political level, Indonesia sent out a signal that the presence of Chinese fishing boats in Natuna waters should not be a ruse for Beijing to stake its claims to the area, which has great economic potential as well.
Indonesia’s actions at sea are a rebuff to any Chinese plan to integrate South-east Asian countries so closely into an emerging Sinic economic sphere that they cede a part of their political autonomy to suit China’s expansive strategic interests. China’s charm offensive ends where Indonesian national interests begin.
Notwithstanding the sternness of the message that Jakarta has sent to Beijing on the Natunas, differences are unlikely to escalate to the point where the overall bilateral structure will be affected.
Indonesia and China are comprehensive strategic partners whose converging interests range from bilateral trade and investment ties to military relations.
On the international stage, Mr Joko’s Global Maritime Fulcrum doctrine envisages the rebuilding of Indonesia’s maritime culture and the expansion of its economy. This would be done in pursuit of a new strategic policy that would project the archipelago as a maritime power with influence in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The Indonesian doctrine, which ties security to economics, fits in well with China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road idea. Along with a proposal to revive the overland Silk Road and the initiative on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the maritime road is a Chinese flagship project that could change the economic face of Asia in this century.
Indonesia supports such blueprints for regional development and peace. One concrete result of the maritime silk road would be the building of ports and tollways in the country. As for the AIIB, Indonesia joined it in spite of warnings that the bank was a Chinese ploy to tie up neighbouring and other economies so as to make them instruments of long-term Chinese ambitions.
Indonesia disagreed with this alarmist view. It went so far as to volunteer Jakarta as the headquarters of the bank, although unsuccessfully.
Overall, in its response to forward-looking initiatives and overtures originating in Beijing, Indonesia has refused to view the rise of China as a strategic threat. Instead, the Indonesian policy elite sees China as a rising power whose time has come and which has legitimate interests.
It is unlikely, therefore, that Indonesia will participate in any attempt to encircle China militarily in the pursuit of a containment strategy. Just as with China, its relations with the United States, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines do not involve the abridgement of its free and active foreign policy. Indonesia is against the militarisation of the South China Sea by any country or a coalition of countries that might force it to choose sides.
Indonesia prefers the maritime status quo – including freedom of navigation – to hold. China is an essential stakeholder in that structure.
However, Beijing should not see Jakarta’s friendship as a sign of weakness. Indonesia’s actions in the Natunas should make this amply clear.