Would Indonesia Actually Challenge China's Nine-Dash Line in International Court?

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A top Indonesian official recently said his country was seeking clarification on the extent of Chinese claims to the South China Sea – and could take China to international court if that clarity isn’t forthcoming. Luhut Pandjaitan, the chief of staff to Indonesian President Joko Widodo as well as Jakarta’s coordinating minister for political, legal, and security affairs, made the comments on Wednesday.

According to Reuters, Panjaitan called China’s “nine-dash line,” which claims most of the South China Sea for Beijing, “a problem we are facing,” saying that “we don’t want to see any power projection in this area.” It’s not only a problem for Indonesia, either – the nine-dash line “also directly (impacts) the interests of Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines,” Panjaitan added.

“We are working very hard on this. We are trying to approach the Chinese,” Panjaitan said. “We would like to see a solution on this in the near future through dialogue, or we could bring it to the International Criminal Court.”

As my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran has explained before, Indonesia walks a fine line when it comes to the South China Sea disputes. On one hand, Jakarta is not a claimant to any of the disputed features in the South China Sea, so it positions itself as a neutral party (and potential mediator). However, Indonesia is also concerned about depictions of China’s nine-dash line that would seem to indicate Beijing claims waters that are part of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (specifically, the EEZ generated by the Natuna Islands, located in the southwest corner of China’s nine-dash line). Jakarta has tried numerous times to get China to clarify its claims, but so far Beijing has stuck to purposeful ambiguity as to the extent and meaning of the nine-dash line.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei declined to see any cause for controversy. “The Indonesian side has no territorial claim to China’s Nansha [Spratly] Islands. The Chinese side has no objection to Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna islands,” he told a press conference on Thursday. Hong added that the “China-Indonesia comprehensive strategic partnership is making steady and sound progress.”

As for the question of an international legal case, Hong once again reiterated China’s stance that the South China Sea disputes must be resolved “through negotiations and consultations with countries directly concerned.” China has repeatedly refused to participate in the Philippines’ arbitration case on the South China Sea issue. While visiting Manila to plan for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming attendance at the APEC summit, Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the case “a knot that has impeded the improvement and development of Sino-Philippine relations.”

Given the diplomatic consequences China has imposed on Manila for its arbitration case, how seriously should we take Pandjaitan’s remarks that Indonesia might undertake legal action to get clarity on the nine-dash line? As Parameswaran has pointed out, taking one-off remarks from Indonesia officials as signs of government policy shifts can be dangerous. It’s also telling that Pandjaitan references the International Criminal Court, which typically deals with war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, when he likely meant the International Court of Justice (or even the Permanent Court of Arbitration, where the Philippines has filed its suit against China).

Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry provided some context for Panjaitan’s comments. Spokesperson Armanatha Nasir told reporters that Indonesia does “not recognize the nine-dash line because it is not in line with … international law.” He confirmed that Jakarta has “asked [China] for clarification on what they mean and what they mean by the nine-dash line.”

“That has not been clarified,” Nasir said.

That lack of clarification is the main source of frustration for Jakarta, which at this point cannot be sure whether or not China intends to claim control over parts of the Indonesian EEZ. But would Indonesia really take China to international court over the issue?

Asked that question, Nasir declined to speculate. “We cannot preempt things before we know how they evolve,” he said. “But what is clear is that we are not a claimant state and we don’t recognize the issue of the nine-dash line, which we have made clear to China.”

It seems more likely that Panjaitan’s comments were meant to signal frustration with China’s ambiguity, rather than a real indication that Indonesia wants to pursue the nine-dash line issue in a legal case. Ultimately, Indonesia may not have to seriously consider the option – the Philippines has already brought the nine-dash line before the Permanent Court of Arbitration for consideration.

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