Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium

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Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium

Before hoping for change, we should understand what the status quo is and why it has persisted.

Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium

Indonesia Navy ship KRI Pattimura entering Port Blair during the India–Indonesia Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT).

Credit: Indian Navy Photo

This week, a Chinese coast guard ship once again attempted to intercept an Indonesian crackdown on a Chinese boat for illegal fishing near the Natuna Islands, sparking unprecedented outrage from Jakarta (See: “China’s Maritime Confrontation With Indonesia Is Not New”).

The incident has already led to speculation about how the country’s traditional approach to the South China Sea could change moving forward. The interest is not surprising given Indonesia’s geopolitical heft, the still-evolving foreign policy of its president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo,” and Jakarta’s status as a non-claimant but an interested party in the South China Sea disputes. But as I’ve cautioned before with respect to other cases, before considering how Jakarta might recalibrate its South China Sea policy, it is wise to first consider what Indonesia’s current policy is and why it has endured (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing It Safe”).

So what is Indonesia’s South China Sea policy? As I’ve argued previously, most recently in a chapter in a new edited volume on the South China Sea disputes, Indonesia’s traditional position might be best summed up as pursuing a ‘delicate equilibrium,’ – seeking to both engage China diplomatically on the issue and enmeshing Beijing and other actors within regional institutions (a softer edge of its approach, if you will) while at the same time pursuing a range of security, legal and economic measures designed to protect its own interests (a harder edge).

An evaluation of Indonesia’s ‘delicate equilibrium’ approach should begin with an analysis of Indonesian interests. I’d argue there are four. First and most narrowly, Indonesia has an interest in safeguarding its own sovereignty because although it is not officially a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, China’s nine-dash line overlaps with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the resource-rich Natuna Islands. Second, in line with its traditional free and active (bebas-aktif) foreign policy, Jakarta has an interest in preserving its autonomy and maneuverability in its foreign relations by ensuring that the South China Sea issue does not exacerbate U.S.-China rivalry or negatively affect its relationship with Washington or Beijing. Third, Indonesia has an interest in broader regional peace and stability as a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional leader, and a maritime nation that uses the South China Sea. Fourth and lastly, as the world’s largest archipelagic state, Indonesia has an interest in upholding international law, including the sanctity of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

To secure these interests, I’d argue that Indonesia since the 1990s has adopted a ‘delicate equilibrium’ – an approach consisting of a calibration between elements in what one might crudely call a softer edge and a harder edge. On the softer side, Indonesia has continued to both carefully develop closer political and economic ties with China in the hope of changing its future preferences (engagement) as well as try to get actors in the South China Sea disputes – including Beijing – to comply with a system of laws and norms through their participation in various fora (enmeshment). With respect to engagement, Indonesia has cautiously engaged China intermittently on the Natunas question since the 1990s but continues to reject any officially negotiated settlement for fear that it would legitimize Beijing’s illegal claims (as Indonesia’s ex-foreign minister Ali Alatas put it, “the repetition of an untruth will ultimately make it appear as truth”). And on enmeshment, Jakarta had hosted annual South China Sea workshops at the Track-2 level since 1990 as a confidence-building measure and fervently supported ASEAN unity on basic principles, with former foreign minister Marty Natalegawa’s shuttle diplomacy to salvage consensus following the breakdown in Phnom Penh in 2012, as well as his ‘dynamic equilibrium’ idea of further enmesh major powers including China in the broader ASEAN-led framework being cases in point (See: “Does ASEAN Have a South China Sea Position?”).

On the other hand, Indonesia has also balanced this with a harder edge to its South China Sea policy, using both military tools (hard balancing, both by building up its own capabilities as well as strengthening ties with other states) as well as nonmilitary means (soft balancing, including through the use of institutions, economic statecraft  and other diplomatic arrangements). On hard balancing, the Natunas have been a key feature of Indonesia’s external defense thinking since the 1990s, with Jakarta continuing to upgrade its air and naval assets to strengthen its position there. And on soft balancing, Indonesia has formally protested China’s nine-dash line map to the United Nations, attempted to detain Chinese vessels illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, and continued to explore the Natunas for oil to demonstrate its rightful ownership to resources there.

Chinese assertiveness in recent years – which included run-ins with Indonesian vessels – had already made it more difficult for the previous government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to maintain this ‘delicate equilibrium,’ with some at home and abroad beginning to question the effectiveness of Indonesia’s South China Sea policy (See: “China’s Maritime Confrontation With Indonesia is Not New”). Indeed, the then military chief Moeldoko had infamously penned a hard-hitting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in April 2014 that set off a debate about whether Jakarta’s approach was changing. Since the election of Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, however, there has been confusion about what his administration’s approach to the South China Sea is as well as the degree to which it is departing from its traditional policy.

Though it is still early days, as of now I’d argue that the Jokowi has recalibrated the ‘delicate equilibrium’ but not abandoned it entirely. With respect to the soft edge of the policy, to the extent that there is change so far, it is in a relative shift of focus away from enmeshment and towards engagement. The Jokowi administration has signaled significantly less interest in enmeshment thus far, with its lack of leadership on the South China Sea issue within ASEAN as well as worrying comments from certain officials about global norms being chief indicators (See: “Is Indonesia Turning Away from ASEAN Under Jokowi?) But engagement of China has arguably not only endured but accelerated, with Jokowi seeing alignment between his own domestic economic goals for Indonesia and Chinese regional ambitions, within the usual limits of course. On the harder edge, there is more continuity than change, with Indonesia continuing to pursue balancing initiatives as it has done before (See: “A New Indonesia Military Boost Near the South China Sea?”).

Of course, the Indonesian government may choose to revisit its overall South China Sea approach following incidents such as the one we witnessed this week. And there may be other events this year that could also influence Indonesian policy as well, such as the potential ruling on the Philippine case expected in May or June and China’s conduct thereafter. But thus far, the Jokowi government has merely recalibrated this traditional approach rather than departing from it entirely. That’s not entirely surprising since it is rooted in enduring realities such as the complexity of Indonesia’s position in the South China Sea, the limits of its capabilities, and the tradition of bebas-aktif in Indonesian foreign policy. Besides, the multifaceted nature of the delicate equilibrium – with its hard and soft edges as well as four components – affords Indonesian policymakers the opportunity to rebalance within the approach rather than dispensing with it altogether while they still can.