Monday, August 2, 2010
Indonesia wades into the South China Sea
IT IS interesting to learn that Indonesia’s government last month, through its mission at the United Nations, wrote to a UN commission (“on the limits of the continental shelf”), contesting China’s position on the South China Sea. Attention has been drawn to the letter by an excellent article by Michael Richardson in the Singapore Straits Times. The letter argues that China’s claim to sovereignty over almost all the sea “clearly lacks international legal basis” and “encroaches [on] the legitimate interest of the global community.”
The letter was sent before the row over the sea flared up again at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi later in July. It is rare these days for any South-East Asian country publicly to challenge China, much as the region’s diplomats privately fret about the recent muscularity of Chinese diplomacy.
Indonesia's intervention now suggests three things. The first is that this is an issue where it feels it has a role to play. That is partly because—unlike Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam (as well as China and Taiwan)—it has no claim of its own in the sea, and so can present itself as an honest broker.
Also, as an archipelagic country, Indonesia has long been interested in the law of the sea. Hasjim Djalal, a veteran Indonesian diplomat and legal expert, chaired the International Seabed Authority, and tried long and hard to set up a mechanism for tackling the South China Sea—some of his writings on the topic can be seen at a useful online archive. (Mr Hasjim is the father of Dino Patti Djalal, who is Indonesia’s ambassador-designate to the United States, having been spokesman and an important kitchen-cabinet member of the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono).
But the second lesson of Indonesia’s letter is to show just how worried the region is by China’s approach. One of Mr Hasjim’s goals was to make China confirm that its interest in the South China Sea was of a different and lower order from, for example, its dispute with Taiwan. In fact, the exact reverse has happened. In talks with America, China has elevated its claim over the sea to a “core national interest”, ie, just like Taiwan (not to mention Tibet).
Mr Richardson’s article has some numbers that help explain why. China’s internationally recognised “Exclusive Economic Zone” at sea is just 880,000 sq km. In the South China Sea, it claims an area four times as big.
The third implication of the letter may be that—at long last—Indonesia is beginning to show a bit of assertiveness in its own diplomacy. Under the long Suharto dictatorship, the regional giant exercised its de facto leadership of ASEAN by stealth. Now it seems, tentatively, to be flexing a few muscles of its own. Banyan, for the Economist