For the final weeks of 2019 and into the new year, China and Indonesia have been facing off over the sovereignty of waters around Jakarta’s Riau Islands, in the South China Sea.
Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone, a 200-nautical-mile zone within its afforded special rights to exploit marine resources, overlaps with China’s capacious nine-dash line claim, under which Beijing asserts rights over nearly 90 per cent of the critical waterway.
That means the core of the ongoing dispute between the two countries boils down to resource exploitation rights within a section of the South China Sea northeast of the Natuna Islands.
While Indonesia’s claim is founded in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – a convention both Beijing and Jakarta have signed and ratified – the Chinese claim dates back to questionable territorial assertions first made in the latter part of the first half of the 20th century.
Tripling down on its alienation of Indonesia amounts to a massive strategic miscalculation by China, ultimately. Instead of building a bridge to Jakarta at a time when the United States appears adrift in Asia, China is alienating what could otherwise be an important partner.
At a time when the Trump administration is vindicating the foreign policy instincts of many in Jakarta who see value in the country’s middle-of-the-road, autonomous foreign policy, Beijing is giving cause for a rethink.
To be sure, Jakarta is far from bandwagoning with the United States when it comes to the South China Sea.
Ever careful to emphasize its position as a non-claimant of territory in the disputed waters, Indonesia has made clear that it is in a position to push back on Chinese challenges to its maritime sovereignty independently.
For an archipelagic state like Indonesia, maritime boundaries are as good as national borders.
The 2019-2020 round of tensions in the waters around the Natuna islands aren’t Indonesia’s first crack at dealing with Chinese coercion. Jokowi, during his first term, contended with multiple incidents in 2016 – the same year the Philippines received a favorable judgment from The Hague-based international tribunal invalidating China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea.
Back then, Indonesia’s former defense minister used an evocative metaphor to describe Jakarta’s view of the challenge around the Natuna islands. Ryamizard Ryacudu called the islands a “front door” to Indonesia, warning that if it weren’t guarded properly, the “thieves” would come in.
The premise of that metaphor was that Indonesia would need to find a way to deter China from asserting its claims to the southernmost extent of the nine-dash line by imposing costs, effectively practicing a strategy of deterrence by denial.
In the intervening years, Indonesia simply hasn’t had enough capacity to implement such a strategy, even if the political will to defend the Natunas was there. Indonesia did build up its capacity in the area, including by deploying warships, fighters, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.
None of Indonesia’s options in dealing with the challenge from China are likely to be swiftly effective, but Jakarta does have recourse.
The most important will be for Indonesia to take its place as first among equals in Southeast Asia – particularly within the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – and take a greater interest in collective regional resistance against Chinese revisionism.
Following the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling largely in the Philippines’ favor, what should have become apparent is the value of international legal norms in helping weaker countries push back against China.
Manila, however, had just seen a change in leadership; President Rodrigo Duterte abandoned his predecessor’s approach and began a period of rapprochement with China.
Indonesia is not the Philippines – especially in the realm of material capabilities that it can bring to bear in pushing back on China – but it still stands to gain from asserting its rights under international law.
It’s not yet too late for Indonesia to lead Southeast Asia back toward institutionalized solutions, especially as negotiations continue toward an ASEAN-China code of conduct for the South China Sea with an anticipated agreement by 2021.
The fact that ASEAN this year is chaired by Vietnam, which has been the most forward-leaning of the territorial claimants in the South China Sea against China in recent years, should facilitate matters, too. It’s time for Southeast Asia to stand together against China; Indonesia can and should lead the way.
A version of this article appeared at the South China Morning Post. It is republished here with kind permission.