Monday, April 11, 2016

Indonesia and China Conflict - China's Ideological Revival at Heart of Natuna Standoff

The South China Sea finally became a major news item in Indonesia when local media widely reported a March 19 incident involving the 300-ton Chinese fishing boat Kway Fey 10078, caught red-handed within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands.
After arresting eight crew members of the Kway Fey, the officers of the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Affairs (KKP) patrol boat Hiu 11 were towing the Chinese vessel back to their base when two Chinese Coast Guard vessels appeared one after another in hot pursuit. One rammed the Kway Fey to prevent it from crossing into Indonesian territorial waters and their combined strength forced the Indonesian officers to abandon the impounded vessel.
The incident has generated both outrage and indignation in the country. However, probably unbeknownst to many Indonesians, the Kway Fey incident was not the first of its kind. Three years ago, on March 26, another KKP patrol vessel, Hiu 001, fared worse in a similar tussle as it ended up having to release both the captured boat and the detainees after the Chinese Maritime Law Enforcement boat Yuzheng 310 "equipped with machine guns, light cannons and electronic sensors" outmaneuvered it. The Hiu crew testified later that they had been unable to radio for help because their satellite phone stopped working as soon as the Yuzheng appeared on the horizon. The difference between the 2013 and 2016 incidents is that the Indonesian government chose to publicize the latter rather than stick to the old formula of silent diplomatic protest.
Although not a claimant, Indonesia no doubt must come up with a better strategy to deal with China's moves in the South China Sea. The problem is that the predominant current thinking on the issue by most Indonesian officials is based on the suspicion that China is after the hydrocarbon deposits in the Natuna seabed. While a resourceful power such as China certainly would make use of the deposits if it were allowed to get its hand on them, there are signs that competition for resources lies not at the heart of China's claims in the area.
As Yale law professor Taisu Zhang has highlighted lately, a new ideological revival is unfolding in China and among its policy makers. Revived interest in ancient Chinese thinkers and philosophers including Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi and Han Fei, is evident as Chinese leaders quote them in their speeches. In 2013 the state even sponsored a new Confucius Academy in Guiyang's provincial capital.
No longer content with the status of a new economic giant, Beijing now seeks to become the world's new ideological paragon, in complete antithesis to the "Western" ideals of democracy and capitalism. Never since the fall of the Soviet Union has the "Western model" faced such a challenge. Beijing clearly believes that it has proved beyond any doubt that economic success does not necessarily entail democracy, liberalism and respect for individual human rights as "Western ideology" insists.
In its attempt to go back to its roots such as Confucianism, China seems to be molding an alternative with which to challenge the often prescribed Western path of civilization. By harking back to its home-grown thinkers for guidance, it also seeks to express self-confidence and nationalism.
Consequently, China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea may well be part of the thinking in Beijing. China's new ideological war is unequivocally fought against the international US-led status quo. Simply put, China will use new interpretations of its own "ancient wisdom and tradition" to make the necessary changes to enable a restoration of its place as a world center of economic, military and intellectual power.
Indeed, to explain away the recent Natuna incident, China claimed that the area was part of its "traditional fishing grounds." The same answer was given in response to Malaysia's protest a few days later when a large Chinese fishing flotilla was spotted around the South Luconia Shoal. In its dispute with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands, China claims "historical rights" as the basis of its argument.
While neo-Confucianism may be the new normal for Chinese leaders today, it wasn't always so. The Chinese Communist Party used to denounce it as part of the decadent old China. A telling, yet probably apocryphal, tale was often told how the Confucian scholars in the Qing court vetoed the use of gunpowder for military purposes, deeming it "barbaric and unethical." The moral of the story was that China, as the nation that invented gunpowder, foolishly refused to use it to strengthen its defenses and ended up the loser against Western imperialism.
Disillusionment with the "Western model" is not confined to China, mainly because the most prominent ambassador for these ideals, the United States of America, has not always been a good role model for them. The feeling is shared by many Asian countries. The military coup in Thailand and the nationalist-conservative stance of the Jokowi government in Indonesia on matters such as capital punishment suggest that a slow retreat from Western ideals is taking place.
It certainly creates an interesting situation for the current Indonesian government, which finds more ideological resonance with the Chinese model and yet is unsettled by its implementation in the South China Sea.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya.


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