Alarmist is when you overestimate a strategic risk. Conversely, underestimating that risk is naïve. A sound strategic analysis always falls between these two extremes. It’s about maintaining a delicate balance between appreciating and courting danger.
The latest incident between China and Indonesia near Natuna Islands incurs the risk of underestimating Indonesia’s strategic impotence against Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness.
When China published its so-called nine-dash or U-shaped line map of the South China Sea in August 1993 (and again in 2009), Jakarta might have assumed that Beijing would somehow compromise for the sake of bilateral relations by excluding Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The fact that China has never clarified what the U-shaped line means led Indonesia to easily dismiss China’s claims. Indeed, Indonesia has consistently rejected the U-shaped line map since; in the words of former foreign minister Ali Alatas, it’s only “an illustrative and not a real map” and thus rightly insists that Indonesia is a “non-claimant” state in the South China Sea disputes. Beijing, on the other hand, reassures Jakarta that it has no claims over Natuna Islands, yet remains ambiguous on the purported overlap between the U-shaped line and Indonesia’s EEZ.
Downplaying the significance of the U-shaped line has thus been Indonesia’s main approach toward China, while offering the self-proclaimed role of an “honest broker” among the claimants. As a result, the U-shaped line did not prevent Indonesia and China from developing their ties into a strategic partnership in 2005, which was elevated into a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2013.Closer ties with China might have given Indonesia a false hope in China’s “peaceful rise” narrative, sweetened by promises of economic and other cooperation, including the recent China-funded high-speed railway project. In return, China might have hoped Indonesia would become more lenient in its rejection of the U-shaped line. China has asked Indonesia not to make their whole bilateral ties hostage to the latest incident. But any amicable inter-state relationship is founded on one sacrosanct principle that everything else stems from: respect for sovereignty.
True, Indonesia has maritime disputes with other countries as well, but the intimidating and coercive nature by which China imposes its claims is unparalleled. Without such respect, there’s no relationship, but a subjugation of one country by another. No sovereign country will accept this. Nor will China.
Indeed, closer bilateral ties haven’t amounted to a softening in China’s attitude on enforcing the U-shaped line in Natuna Islands. On the contrary, maritime incidents involving China in the area have been recurring, with the last one being the most escalatory.
Clearly, China’s ambiguity on the U-shaped line is more declaratory than actual. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, the latest incident suggests that the line could stretch as far south as Beijing wishes. Indonesia should see this as a tipping point, where it must recalibrate its approach toward China. The first step to solving a problem is to admit there is one. Perhaps to the chagrin of maritime lawyers, the latest incident demonstrates that the South China Sea dispute isn’t just a legal question. Rather, it’s a strategic question at heart and will remain so for the foreseeable future, which demands a strategic answer. No longer can Indonesia downplay the U-shaped line and assume it’s bereft of strategic risks. Indonesia must craft alternative ways to check Beijing’s maritime assertiveness beyond the usual bilateral diplomatic protests. First, escalate Indonesia’s rhetoric by demanding from China a formal public apology for the recent incident and a promise it won’t recur. If need be, make this apology a requirement for the release of the eight Chinese fishermen of the Kway Fey.
China would predictably reject issuing such an apology, which implies that similar incidents will happen again. But, no worries, this will build an even stronger case for Indonesia to accelerate expanding naval and maritime law enforcement in Natuna Islands. Second, be more vocal in rejecting the U-shaped line whenever and wherever circumstances allow. Indonesia can use a harsher diplomatic tone against China in ASEAN forums and endorse the views of ASEAN claimants with much less hesitation insofar as they’re aligned with Indonesia’s. Convince Beijing that ASEAN is where Indonesian diplomacy can hurt China the most. Third, don’t back off when China threatens to blackmail Indonesia economically (such as cancelling and postponing investment pledges, or downgrading trade). Play other cards, such as Japan, India, Australia and the US, to convince China that it has more to lose when downgrading economic relations with Indonesia. Remember, Indonesia’s isn’t alone in this predicament.
Fourth, deepen cooperation with like-minded partners equally wary of China’s intentions in the South China Sea. Enhance regular maritime military exercises with the US and include the Air Force participation; invite military officers from Australia, Japan and ASEAN countries as observers, and if need be, involve them selectively as third parties; and increase civilian maritime law enforcement patrols in Natuna Islands, such as by the fisheries ministry and the new Maritime Security Board (Bakamla).In the meantime, review all bilateral security and maritime agreements with China and make their implementation contingent on China’s unqualified recognition over Indonesia’s maritime boundary and sovereign rights in Natuna Islands. Fifth, accelerate the upgrading of Natuna’s Ranai airbase and naval bases to accommodate greater naval and air force presence for combat and surveillance purposes and their supporting infrastructure, particularly radars. When money is scarce, explore opportunities for international assistance. An expanded version of the US-funded Integrated Maritime Surveillance System (IMSS) along the Malacca and Makassar Straits could be a model.Finally, make sure when doing the above steps it remains on Indonesian terms.
Prove that Indonesia isn’t strategically inept a nation.
The writer is a presidential PhD scholar with the Strategic and Defense Studies Center, Australian National University