Sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea are at the heart of increasing tensions in Southeast Asia. In early May, the dispatch of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters and the subsequent standoff with Vietnam had the effect of centralizing global attention on the confrontation between China and some of its ASEAN neighbors. Although tensions over contending maritime boundaries are not just about China – unresolved bilateral disputes still exist between Malaysia and the Philippines for instance – recent events confirmed that the South China Sea, along with East China Sea where Sino-Japanese relations are also increasingly strained, is a locus of China’s growing maritime assertiveness. So far, China’s activity in the region has met the uneven responses of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, all having claims of their own.
Other, non-claimant actors also have a role in these disputes. The United States is not claiming any territory in the East and South China Seas but made clear nonetheless that it had a “vital interest” in unimpeded freedom of navigation in the region. In the South China Sea, Indonesia has on several occasions denied having any territorial dispute with China, but monitors the evolution of the general situation with great care. It is also very involved in the management of these disputes: Jakarta has long been a vocal proponent of a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. It has sponsored a series of dedicated workshops on the issue. When the ASEAN Phnom Penh Summit failed to result in a joint closing statement for the first time in the organization’s history – due to Chinese pressure over the very issue of South China Sea disputes – it was the shuttle diplomacy efforts of Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa that saved the day.
Indonesia thus seeks to endorse a special role in South China Sea disputes, as “mediator,” “go-between,” and a stabilizing force. Jakarta plays this card confidently, as it is in line with its traditional foreign policy guidelines. Called “free and active” (bebas dan aktif), this doctrine has a dual aim. First, it seeks to avoid the meddling of external powers and anchor the country’s independence in a non-aligned strategy. Second, it implies that the country should not be passive, and instead establish itself as a driver in international affairs. These same principles are at play in Natalegawa’s plan to foster a “dynamic equilibrium” in Southeast Asia, through which Jakarta seeks to attract as many powers to the table as possible, and navigate the fluid balance of power it could establish between them all. This policy is in fact designed in such a way that it firms up Indonesia’s position as diplomatic hub and power broker in its region.
The particular status of Indonesia in the South China Sea – as a crucial facilitator of negotiations, go-between, and mediator – seemed poised to only strengthen with the growth of the country’s economy and confidence, at least until 2009. That year, China submitted to the Secretary General of the United Nations a “Note verbale” in which it officially resorted to the now-famous “nine-dash line” to delineate its claims in the South China Sea. This line was originally drafted in 1914 and harnessed by the Chinese Nationalist government in 1947; the Republic of China (Taiwan) still uses it, but as a perimeter to its own claims. Taipei claims ownership and entitlement to the islands and adjacent waters within the “nine-dash line” on the basis of international maritime law. Beijing, for its part, equates the nine-dash line to a claim in itself. Problematically enough, under this categorization, Beijing’s territorial claims would encroach on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that Indonesia derives from its Natuna Islands.
This was confirmed in May and June 2010, when an Indonesian ship was threatened at gunpoint by Chinese vessels off the Natunas, for having arrested Chinese trawlers. That event substantiated the notion that China considers the “nine-dash line” as delineating “historic waters” over which it enjoys total sovereignty; a contention that defies contemporary international maritime law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is why Jakarta submitted in turn a Note verbale to Ban Ki Moon, contesting the validity and legality of China’s “nine-dash line.” This has led to a complicated situation whereby, on the one hand, Jakarta denies having any territorial dispute with China – recognizing that there is one would give ground to Beijing’s claim – and China on the other hand hints at a possible dispute with Indonesia. While Beijing refrained from making its case too vociferously, to avoid having to clarify – and possibly regularize – its position vis-à-vis UNCLOS, a form of “strategic uncertainty” prevailed, allowing Jakarta to uphold its status of neutral mediator.
Several incidents and developments have since complicated the situation still further, and put Indonesia’s position under greater stress. In early March 2014, a high-ranking Indonesian official, Commodore Fahru Zaini, commented that “China [had] claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters.” These words were not officially sanctioned. Natalegawa even went public to dismiss Fahru’s comments and confirm Jakarta’s line: there is no territorial conflict with China. Nevertheless, these comments had already been picked up by foreign media and ignited a new controversy over Indonesia’s South China Sea position and strategy. Further fueling this debate, military officers had previously announced that Indonesia’s armed forces (TNI) were reinforcing their presence and capabilities on the Natunas with additional ships, Sukhoi fighters and even American Apache helicopters.
Why foreign media picked up so fast on Fahru’s comments is understandable: should Indonesia’s posture shift to become party to South China Sea disputes, this would have tremendous repercussions on the region’s geopolitics. First, China’s actions would have turned a useful intermediary and interface with other parties to the dispute into a major adversary, hence curtailing its discussion and negotiation options. Second, antagonizing the largest country in Southeast Asian might lead to increased cohesion among ASEAN claimant states against China. Third, it could potentially weaken China’s own claims: its “nine-dash line” and the imprecise “historical rights” it is supposed to stem from and firm up have very little legal value. Conversely, Indonesia’s entitlement to its EEZ is solid, and consistent with UNCLOS. Fourth, it could prompt ASEAN countries to seek an enhanced U.S. presence in the region, to check China’s rising ambitions. A good indication of this potential development was the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jakarta in mid-February 2014, during which he discussed South China Sea tensions with Marty Natalegawa.
Although Indonesia’s position has officially not changed, external pressures and events may compel Jakarta to gradually amend its stance. Domestic evolutions do have a role as well. Late June this year, Indonesia’s Presidential candidates Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) and Prabowo Subianto engaged in a foreign policy debate. Strikingly, they displayed contrasting stances over the South China Sea. For Prabowo, Indonesia is involved in the disputes; for Jokowi, it is not. On such key issue for Indonesia’s diplomacy, this disagreement is enlightening of the particular place Indonesia finds itself in at a time of rising tensions in its maritime periphery.
Indonesia’s diplomacy has been quite successful so far in carving for itself a status of go-between and role model for parties to the disputes in the South China Sea: On March 14, China’s foreign minister called his Indonesian counterpart in the wake of escalating tensions with Vietnam. That Beijing called on Jakarta to communicate on this matter is a good indication of Indonesia’s place and importance in China’s agenda vis-à-vis the South China Sea. Later, in May, Jakarta signed with Manila a landmark agreement putting an end to a 20-year border dispute, a deal aptly described by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a good example of peaceful border dispute settlement.
Certainly, Indonesia is gearing up to play a bigger role in the South China Sea. In taking on the role of “honest broker” and model, Indonesia does fill a gap in the disputes’ management processes: it has built a position for itself that probably no other country/international institution could manage just as well. The administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has therefore proved well able to implement a “free and active” foreign policy, as required by the domestic strategic thinking tradition. More of the same can be expected under Indonesia’s new president, although modalities can differ – as the presidential debate on foreign policy sharply demonstrated. A more confident Indonesia will in all likelihood be more assertive in making its own case vis-à-vis the South China Sea and this would be a welcome development. Jakarta’s support to the CoC and defense of peaceful management of disputes under international law have to be upheld and buttressed.
But there is also a problem with that scenario. And that is not that Jakarta fails in its endeavor; rather, it may well be that it succeeds. To date, “strategic uncertainty” has allowed all countries involved or interested in South China Sea disputes to maintain a certain status quo, renouncing none of their respective claims (or even aggrandizing them) while avoiding direct military confrontation. All found an interest in capping the risks of escalation with a series of non-binding initiatives, such as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), and various forms of dialogue (bilaterally or within ASEAN summits and related forums; between militaries, senior officials, or lawmakers; ad hoc or recurrent). In short, tensions were “negotiated.” No other context could arguably have been more conducive to Indonesia’s “free and active” foreign policy, and more favorable to the consolidation of its status of mediator.
But the context is now changing. The more Indonesia confirms its status of go-between, the more results it will be expected to deliver. And against the background of rising tensions, the expectations of international partners are not only growing, they are also diverging. Should Jakarta maintain its emphasis on managing the disputes at a multilateral level – through ASEAN-sponsored negotiations over the implementation of a DoC and the signing of a CoC – it risks falling short of any kind of breakthrough because of opposition from within and outside. Should it instead institutionalize in one form or another its post-Phnom Penh Summit “shuttle diplomacy” experience, it runs the risk of further weakening ASEAN platforms and processes. Instituting a “dynamic equilibrium” between great and middle powers in the region has implied maintaining good and equal relations with all. When “negotiated tensions” allowed for a limited degree of uncertainty while reasonably containing escalation risks, this certainly was the best place to be. But when tensions ratchet up and great powers arrive at a more overt kind of confrontation, as seems to be the case today, this can be the worst place to be.
A dynamic equilibrium that is too dynamic may not be an equilibrium at all. The position of chair could rapidly turn into an ejection seat, and the mediator into a scapegoat.
Bruno Hellendorff is Research Fellow at GRIP’s Asian Desk. Thierry Kellner is professor in the Department of Political Science at the Université libre de Bruxelles.