What’s Behind Indonesia’s South China Sea Rhetoric Amid US-China Tensions?

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What’s Behind Indonesia’s South China Sea Rhetoric Amid US-China Tensions?

Observers need to look past the words of a few to understand Indonesia’s approach.

What’s Behind Indonesia’s South China Sea Rhetoric Amid US-China Tensions?

An Indonesian Navy corvette KRI Sultan Hasanuddin 366 in the Strait of Malacca.

Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

Over the past few days, much ink has been spilled about Indonesia’s rhetoric on the South China Sea disputes as the United States finally conducted a freedom of navigation operation near China’s artificial islands there.

While paying attention to what the world’s fourth largest country thinks is important, observers would do well to look beyond the words of a few individual officials to get a sense for Indonesia’s South China Sea approach.

A case in point was the brouhaha over the comments of Luhut Pandjaitan, one of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s top advisers. On Tuesday, according to Kyodo News, Pandjaitan said that Indonesia disagreed with the U.S. “power projection,” equating the move with ineffective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To some, such comments make it seem like Indonesia’s South China Sea position is slightly anti-U.S. – perhaps even pro-Chinese – and that Jakarta may not view Chinese assertiveness there with much alarm. In fact, that could not be further from the truth.

Pandjaitan’s exact comments, which were given offhand in response to a few reporters, ought not to be viewed as an official articulation of Indonesia’s South China Sea policy, which I have detailed at length previously (See: “No, Indonesia’s South China Sea Approach Has Not Changed”). More generally, parsing comments by individual Indonesian officials makes for good headlines but is a bad way to assess policy change because of the diversity of views that can emerge even within a few weeks. Indeed, just last week, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu made the news when he suggested in Beijing that that if regional countries can manage the South China Sea on their own, “there’s no need to involve other parties in resolving the dispute.”

A less hyperbolic and more authoritative and comprehensive version of Jakarta’s approach was what Jokowi himself said in prepared remarks at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, while on his inaugural trip to the United States. As fate would have it, Jokowi wound up speaking just hours after the FONOP had occurred. As I reported for The Diplomat, Jokowi said that while Indonesia was not a South China Sea claimant, the country has an interest in the preservation of regional peace and stability (See: “Indonesia Calls for South China Sea Restraint Amid US-China Tensions”). He implored all sides – not just the United States – to exercise restraint. He also said tensions in the area must be defused through peaceful means based on international law and that China and ASEAN should make progress on a binding code of conduct (CoC).

Though Jokowi did not explicitly mention the illegality of China’s nine-dash line claim or Beijing’s foot-dragging on the CoC, it was clear what he was referring to. Indeed, when asked how Indonesia would manage its relationship with China following his speech, Jokowi acknowledged that Beijing was an “important partner” but spent the second half of his response on the South China Sea issue, clearly indicating its importance even within the Sino-Indonesian relationship. He also directly specified ensuring freedom of navigation as one of the key areas of focus in the South China Sea.

Suggestions that Indonesia’s South China Sea position is slightly ‘pro-China’ and ‘anti-U.S.’ are vastly overstated. If one looks at what Indonesia is doing in the South China Sea, as opposed to what individual Indonesian officials are saying, Jakarta’s actions clearly indicate that such simplistic characterizations could not be further from the truth. In reality, in response to China’s growing assertiveness over the last few years – which has included bold intrusions into Jakarta’s waters – Indonesia has been building up its own capabilities and has pursued closer security ties with other countries including the United States. Under Jokowi, the South China Sea issue has arguably been even more of a focus given the administration’s prickliness on questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity (See: “The Trouble With Indonesia’s Foreign Policy Priorities Under Jokowi”).

Just last week, Indonesia’s legislature authorized a proposal to allocate money for earlier plans to strengthen a military base directed at the resource-rich Natuna Islands, which overlap with China’s nine-dash line. Officials have openly said the plan is motivated by growing tensions in the South China Sea (See: “Why Is Indonesia Building a New South China Sea Military Base?”). In addition to the U.S.-Indonesia defense agreements reached during Jokowi’s visit, maritime security has also featured prominently in engagements between Washington and Jakarta, including during Jokowi’s summit meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama (See: “Exclusive: US, Indonesia Eye New Defense Pacts for Jokowi Visit”). Meanwhile, while Indonesia has pursued closer economic ties with Beijing, military officials admit privately that defense relations remain limited due to lingering mistrust (See: “China and Indonesia Under Jokowi: Show Me The Money”).

To be fair, Pandjaitan’s remarks – though hyperbolic with the comparison between FONOPs and all-out wars – do reflect broader tendencies within Indonesian foreign policy that continue to inform the views of some today. Jakarta has traditionally viewed intervention by major powers with suspicion; it prefers not to take sides between major powers and instead focuses on preserving its own autonomy and exercising regional leadership. And while U.S.-Indonesia relations have been on the uptick, close observers of the relationship know that ties have long been strained by America’s ‘complex’ historical legacy there – as evidenced by its involvement in support for anti-communist rebellions in Indonesia in the 1950s – as well as recent U.S. wars in the Middle East, which are unpopular in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Pandjaitan may have meant for his South China Sea comments to reflect these general tendencies. His message might have been that Indonesia is neither opposed to U.S. preservation of freedom of navigation nor tolerant of Beijing’s growing assertiveness; Jakarta is merely concerned that U.S. FONOPs would risk exacerbating U.S.-China rivalry, thereby undermining regional stability and Indonesia’s national autonomy by forcing it to pick sides. Such a view is one shared by other regional states and reflects Indonesia’s preference to walk a careful balance between major powers. And we saw similar concerns even before Jokowi came to power. For instance, when Washington announced the rotational basing of 2,500 marines in Darwin, Australia back in 2011 as part of its “rebalance to Asia,” then-Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa declared that the move would create a “vicious cycle of tension and mistrust” between Washington and Beijing where Southeast Asian states may be forced to take sides.

But the broader point is this: while parsing the words of every Indonesian official in search of headlines or policy shifts, outside observers should not be fooled into thinking that these statements represent authoritative articulations of Indonesia’s current position or signal potential change. Rhetoric is often not reality. And actions do speak much louder than words when it comes to Indonesia’s South China Sea policy — if only they were heard.