This week, a Chinese coast guard ship once again attempted to intercept an Indonesian crackdown on a Chinese boat for illegal fishing, sparking unprecedented outrage from Jakarta (See: “China’s Maritime Confrontation With Indonesia Is Not New”).
The incident has predictably led to a chorus of voices calling for a reexamination of Indonesia’s South China Sea policy under its president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. While more leadership from Jakarta on this issue would certainly be desirable and one certainly should not rule out a shift, there are also good reasons to expect that the country will continue to recalibrate its current approach to the South China Sea rather than depart significantly from it (See: “Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium“).
Though Indonesia is technically not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, it is an interested party. Most obviously, China’s nine-dash line overlaps with the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the resource-rich Natuna Islands, a point that has long miffed Jakarta. But Indonesia has broader interests too, including preserving its much-prized foreign policy autonomy by ensuring the South China Sea issue does not negatively affect its relationship with Washington and Beijing, safeguarding regional stability, as well as upholding international law – including the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the world’s largest archipelagic state.
To preserve these interests, Indonesia has pursued an approach to the South China Sea since 1990 which I’ve termed a ‘delicate equilibrium’ – seeking to both cautiously 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). While growing Chinese assertiveness since 2009 had made it more difficult for Indonesia to continue to walk this tightrope during the second term of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, this approach nonetheless endured. And even though the Jokowi administration has sent confusing signals about its South China Sea policy thus far and has recalibrated it somewhat – most notably in its relative lack of focus on enmeshment within regional institutions – other components of the ‘delicate equilibrium’ including engagement and balancing continue to be pursued, arguably even more intensely.
The incident this week, where a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed a Chinese fishing vessel in tow by an Indonesian law enforcement vessel, is an escalation of similar ones witnessed in the past rather than a new development per se. Yet Indonesia’s unprecedented outrage at the first such high-profile incident under Jokowi – a stark contrast to previous efforts to downplay such incidents – has been quite striking. That in turn has led to another round of speculation as to whether we could see a change in Indonesia’s South China Sea approach. While one should not rule out such a dramatic shift, there are several reasons why we are more likely to see a recalibration of Jakarta’s current policy rather than a radical departure.
First, Indonesia’s approach is rooted in enduring realities that have not changed with the current incident. For instance, though some have been quick to criticize the country’s continued adherence to its role as an ‘honest broker’ as opposed to taking a stronger regional role, this tendency is partly rooted in the country’s foreign policy tradition as well as its complex position on the South China Sea issue. As I have noted before, Indonesia has been reluctant to embroil itself in major power contests, and the case of U.S.-China differences on the South China Sea question – including freedom of navigation operations – is no exception (See: “What’s Behind Indonesia’s South China Sea Rhetoric Amid US-China Tensions?”). Jakarta’s desire to not engage more actively is also partly due to a lingering fear that it would only legitimize Beijing’s claims that would undermine Indonesian interests (as Indonesia’s former foreign minister Ali Alatas famously put it, “the repetition of an untruth will ultimately make it appear as truth”).
And despite Jakarta’s oft-cited geopolitical heft, as I’ve detailed extensively elsewhere, its capabilities in the maritime realm are in fact still quite modest, thereby limiting its options and complicating the adoption of a tougher approach towards Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. In part due to years of underspending on defense, even Indonesian officials admit that the country is unable to perform basic functions such as fully patrolling the world’s second-longest coastline (See: “Between Aspiration and Reality: Indonesian Foreign Policy After the 2014 Elections”). Though notable efforts are underway under Jokowi to boost the country’s capabilities, including the long-delayed creation of a coast guard – they begin from a low base and face significant challenges (See: “Indonesia’s Maritime Ambition: Can Jokowi Realize It?”).
Second, at least thus far, Jokowi’s foreign policy priorities seem to fit well with Indonesia’s current South China Sea approach, thereby making a radical departure improbable. While there is a tendency to overstate Indonesia’s growing engagement of China under Jokowi, there is little question that he has embraced Beijing economically because he senses a role for it to help him achieve his domestic priorities including infrastructure development (See: “China and Indonesia Under Jokowi: Show Me The Money”). If he perceives that this priority would be harmed by further antagonizing Beijing, it would limit his ability to shift Indonesia’s approach.
More fundamentally, from what we have seen so far, the Jokowi’s administration appears to be focusing more narrowly on executing its war against illegal fishing – an issue which involves several of its neighbors in addition to China – rather than pushing the envelope on the broader South China Sea question where its fight is with Beijing alone (See: Explaining Indonesia’s ‘Sink the Vessels’ Policy Under Jokowi”). To be sure, these two concerns do overlap, as they did with this week’s incident as well as the first sinking of a Chinese vessel last year after much deliberation (See: “Indonesia Sinks First Vessel from China Under Jokowi”). But the broader point is that beyond rhetoric, the Jokowi administration has been rather unwilling to take on China unless it is part of a broader problem involving other countries as well, and even so, it has done so with great caution. That does not sound like a government that would suddenly seek to dramatically shift its South China Sea policy in response to a single incident.
But while we are unlikely to see an abandonment of Indonesia’s ‘delicate equilibrium’ approach in the South China Sea, we may see a recalibration of it or an intensification of certain individual components. For instance, on the harder edge of its South China Sea approach, Indonesia’s deputy navy chief Arie Henrycus Sembiring has already said that the navy would send bigger vessels to back up its patrol boats. We may see other moves as well, including a faster buildup of Indonesian capabilities near the Natunas which has already been ongoing under the Jokowi administration (See: “A New Indonesia Military Boost Near the South China Sea?”). Some of the other suggestions, including one from Indonesia’s fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti that Jakarta may take the issue to an international tribunal, are more curious (that move would only legitimize China’s claim, and with little effect since the Philippines is already challenging Beijing’s claims) (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“).
Indeed, that is arguably the reason why Indonesia’s South China Sea approach has persisted for so long and is more likely to endure than not: its hard and soft edges as well as four components allow for flexibility and recalibration without having to fashion a whole new approach altogether.