Indonesia crosses swords with China over South China Sea: 'Bombshell to stop China's expansionism'?

Indonesia has recently taken a firmer position vis-à-vis China on the South China Sea (SCS). This was described by some as the first time that any of Manila’s Southeast Asian neighbours had stood up and endorsed the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling, which rejected Beijing's claims to most of the critical waterway in SCS and ruled in favour of the Philippines. Is Indonesia's assertive stance “a bombshell to stop China’s expansionism” or “an extension of the Indonesian existing policy”?
Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects Indonesian navy ships at Lampa Strait Navy Base, 8 January 2020. (Indonesia Cabinet Secretariat website)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo inspects Indonesian navy ships at Lampa Strait Navy Base, 8 January 2020. (Indonesia Cabinet Secretariat website)

Indonesia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations (UN) submitted a note verbale (circular note) to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on 26 May. This was in response to circular notes sent by the Chinese UN permanent mission between December 2019 and April 2020, stating Beijing’s position regarding the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of three ASEAN states, namely Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Some observers stated that this was a “bombshell to stop China’s expansionism” while others claimed that it was “an extension of the Indonesian existing policy”.

On the surface, it appears that Indonesia was supporting the three ASEAN states, which have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea with the PRC, as Jakarta refuted China’s nine-dash line map for having no legal basis without mentioning its overlapping claim with China in the Natuna EEZ. It even raised the 12 July 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling to argue its case. The ruling had rejected Beijing's claims to most of the critical waterway and ruled in favour of the Philippines. Jakarta further affirmed in the note that it has no territorial dispute with Beijing. Some observers stated that this was a “bombshell to stop China’s expansionism” while others claimed that it was “an extension of the Indonesian existing policy”.

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This file photo taken on 20 August 2019 shows a United Nations Security Council meeting at the United Nations in New York. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

How true are the above statements? Why did Jakarta submit a diplomatic note merely arguing about the nine-dash line? Was this the first time for Jakarta to cite the 2016 Tribunal Ruling? The answer lies in the most recent development in late December 2019 over the Natunas.

In the past, China used the “traditional fishing grounds” argument to justify its presence in “relevant waters”. After the December 2019 incident, however, China openly claimed that it had the “historical rights” to be there.

Between 19 to 24 December, about 60 Chinese fishing boats, accompanied by coast guard vessels, had encroached on Indonesia’s EEZ. They refused to leave until 6 January 2020, after President Joko Widodo had visited the Natuna Besar islands.

It seems that Jakarta has modified its strategies due to Beijing’s changing behaviour and argument. In the past, China used the “traditional fishing grounds” argument to justify its presence in “relevant waters” (read: this includes the “Natuna waters”). After the December 2019 incident, however, China openly claimed that it had the “historical rights” to be there.

Thereafter, Indonesia felt threatened. It began to abandon its ambiguous position of not directly referring to the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling and citing the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the general basis for resolving international maritime disputes. However, since the December 2019 incident, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta has openly cited the tribunal ruling to support its stand on Indonesia’s EEZ.

In reality, Indonesia’s hardening position on the South China Sea started during the December 2019 incident, and not on 26 May 2020 when Indonesia submitted the circular note to the UN. In this sense, it is true that it is an extension of Indonesia’s existing policy, but this “existing policy” is a relatively new one arising from the December 2019 incident.

This time, Indonesia has specifically cited the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling to refute China’s nine-dash line map. This action is quite significant in that it has openly declared to the world that Indonesia has chosen to support the 2016 ruling.

It is also worth noting that Indonesia’s rejection of the nine-dash line map in the UN did not start from the 26 May 2020 note verbale. It was first put forward as early as 8 July 2010, after China submitted the nine-dash line map to the UN one year earlier.

The 2010 circular note argued that “there is no clear explanation as to the legal basis, the method of drawing, and the status of those separated dotted-lines". It further argued that the maritime zone claimed by China contains “very small islands and rocks” which cannot sustain “human habitation or economic life of their own". And according to UNCLOS, they “shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf".

This time, Indonesia has specifically cited the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling to refute China’s nine-dash line map. This action is quite significant in that it has openly declared to the world that Indonesia has chosen to support the 2016 ruling. Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in Washington, was reported as saying that this was the first time that any of Manila’s Southeast Asian neighbours had stood up and endorsed the 2016 ruling.

By doing so, it appears that Indonesia is now siding with other ASEAN claimant states against China, but actually Indonesia’s major concern is its own national territorial integrity. By demolishing the nine-dash line argument, the overlap between Indonesia’s EEZ and China’s claims would be resolved automatically. It certainly does not mean that Indonesia wants to take a leadership position in ASEAN in resolving the disputed claims in the South China Sea.

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In this 8 January 2020, file photo released by the Indonesian Presidential Office, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, inspects troops during his visit at Indonesian Navy ship KRI Usman Harun at Selat Lampa Port, Natuna Islands, Indonesia. Widodo reaffirmed his country's sovereignty during a visit to a group of islands at the edge of the South China Sea that China claims as its traditional fishing area. (Agus Soeparto, Indonesian Presidential Office)

On 2 June 2020, China’s permanent mission at the UN responded to Indonesia’s note, arguing that Jakarta and Beijing have “no territorial dispute” despite their “overlapping claims” over parts of the Nanhai (read: Natuna waters). It appears that Beijing recognised the sovereignty of Natuna Islands and its territorial waters as belonging to Indonesia but not the EEZ which partially falls within the nine-dash line map.

China repeated its own argument that it has sovereignty over the Nanhai Zhudao (all islands in the South China Sea), including the Nansha (Spratly) islands. It is interesting that in dealing with Indonesia, China did not use the term “nine-dash line.” In the UN note, it used Nanhai Zhudao to refer to the South China Sea.

Indonesia has undoubtedly taken a sterner stance on the South China Sea issue. But given the diametrically opposing views between Jakarta and Beijing, the dispute has only become more intractable.

However, Beijing stated its willingness to discuss and negotiate with Jakarta over the matter. This is the long-used strategy used by Beijing. But Jakarta has always rejected negotiations, as doing so will be tantamount to a recognition of the nine-dash line map and hence China’s sovereignty and historical claims over the South China Sea.

To press the point, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on 8 June that China’s sovereign rights and interests in the South China Sea is “consistent, clear and in accordance with international law including… UNCLOS.” The spokesman added that this position will not be changed by “the doubts and opposition from a single country".

Indonesia has undoubtedly taken a sterner stance on the South China Sea issue. But given the diametrically opposing views between Jakarta and Beijing, the dispute has only become more intractable.

This article was first published as ISEAS Commentary 2020/86 "South China Sea: Indonesia Crosses Swords with China" by Leo Suryadinata.

Related: Recent Chinese moves in the Natunas rile Indonesia | The South China Sea: More dangerous and unstable