Earlier this week, a number of news outlets reported that Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had said that part of China’s claims to almost the entire the South China Sea has no legal basis, and that Jakarta wants to remain “an honest broker” in the disputes there.
This was perceived among some to be the first time Jokowi had taken a position on the issue since taking office last October, which was significant because he said so on a visit to Japan and right before a trip to China. It might also contribute to the perception that Indonesia’s approach to the South China Sea issue has changed, however slightly, under Jokowi.
“The ‘nine-dashed line’ that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law,” Jokowi reportedly said in a Japanese version of an interview with the Yomiuri newspaper.
Subsequently, Jokowi as well as other Indonesian officials and advisers were quick to clarify the remarks and dismiss the fact that any change had occurred. Rizal Sukma, a renowned scholar and now Jokowi’s foreign policy adviser, told Reuters that Jokowi was speaking only about China’s nine-dash line, rather than Beijing’s overall claim on the South China Sea. He also added that nothing had changed since Indonesia has made its official stance clear before.
Jokowi himself also later clarified that he was speaking only about the nine-dash line at a press conference in Japan. He also said that by suggesting Indonesia play a role of “honest broker”, he meant that Jakarta was ready to be a mediator “if it is necessary,” and that Indonesia was not siding with any party involved in the dispute. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi also emphasized that “Indonesia has no overlapping claim whatsoever with China.”
Why is this all so complicated?
Partly that is because Indonesia’s adroit approach to the South China Sea, more so than Malaysia’s stance (which I have written about here) can seem rather complicated to the untrained eye. For Jakarta, Indonesia is not a claimant to the South China Sea disputes because if Indonesia and China have no overlapping claims to islands, then they should not have disputes over waters, since rights to waters are derived from rights to land under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
Yet at the same time, Indonesian officials have been well aware since the 1990s that China’s nine-dash line map overlaps with Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) generated from the resource-rich Natuna Islands chain. Indonesia has tried repeatedly in the past to seek clarification from Beijing on this point but doubts have persisted since. Beyond this narrow interest, Indonesia is also an interested party (though not a claimant) on the South China Sea issue because in addition to the fact that China’s claims are inconsistent with international law, they also conflict with four other ASEAN countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – and risks undermining stability in a region where Indonesia is seen as a leader.
Given this fine line, since the 1990s Indonesia has been using a careful mix of diplomatic, legal and security measures to fashion a delicate approach to both oppose China’s contentious claims while not officially legitimizing them; and also helping informally facilitate confidence-building measures between claimant states while maintaining Jakarta’s own status as a non-claimant. Diplomatically, Indonesia does not even officially include China in the list of neighbors with which it must settle maritime boundaries, since that would only lend credence to China’s claims. Legally, Indonesia officially protested against China’s nine-dash line map when it was officially submitted to the UN in May 2009, and it pushes for an early conclusion of a binding code of conduct. And security-wise, Indonesia continues to increase its own capabilities to better protect its own territory and surrounding waters.
China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has admittedly made Indonesia’s delicate balancing act an even tougher one over the past few years. China’s nine-dash line map, along with growing Chinese incursions into Indonesian waters, has led to occasionally hawkish statements by some military officials. A few have even called for Jakarta to take a more active role in resolving the disputes, even though it is still unclear how this might even occur. And as close Indonesia watchers know, the South China Sea issue also came up in the presidential debates between Jokowi and his opponent Prabowo Subianto, with both having different takes on what Indonesia’s role was and how it might exercise it.
As of now, however, Jokowi has yet to depart from Indonesia’s traditional approach to the South China Sea. While it is still early days and things could change, all of the recent comments he made in Japan – including the illegality of China’s nine-dash line and the willingness of Indonesia to play the role of an “honest broker” – have been part of Indonesia’s approach, as Rizal, Retno and Jokowi himself all noted.
Of course, some might argue that there is nonetheless a stylistic change. Jokowi’s focus on the issue is occurring on a trip where he is strengthening ties with Japan, and his government has been relatively pricklier on sovereignty issues as part of its maritime doctrine – dubbed the global maritime fulcrum – and its “sink the vessels” policy. Even here, though, I would emphasize that Jokowi and his advisers have also been prioritizing improving ties with China as well for several reasons (see my piece here), and that they are conscious of the balance that needs to be struck between protecting Jakarta’s interests on the South China Sea question while strengthening ties with Beijing.