That an international court found Chinaâ€™s nine-dash line, which claims most of the South China Sea as Chinese territory, to be at odds with Unclos tenets should have been music to the ears of those in power in Jakarta, given all the past and recent incursions by Chinese vessels into Indonesiaâ€™s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands.Â Though the actual islands fall outside Chinaâ€™s line, their 200-mile EEZ overlaps with the waters inside the line by some 19,300 square miles.Â The arbitral award to the Philippines is, in effect, a legal precedent for what would happen if Indonesia were to take Chinaâ€™s claim before an international tribunal. Still, Jakartaâ€™s reaction to the Hague ruling has been far from lucid.
In its initial response, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement steeped in predictable platitudes, such as calling for the concerned parties to exercise restraint and respect for international law. In so doing, Indonesia unimaginatively clung to its time-honored â€“ now anachronistic â€“ position as an â€œhonest brokerâ€ and â€œnonclaimantâ€ in the South China Sea disputes. Given Chinaâ€™s growing assertiveness in the Natuna Sea, it is doubtful Indonesia can retain its neutrality without appearing ineffectual. More worrisome, however, was the recent 49th Foreign Ministersâ€™ Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Vientiane, Laos, which produced a communiquÃ© devoid of reference to the tribunalâ€™s recent ruling, owing to explicit objections by Cambodia. The eventual insipid communiquÃ©, proudly claimed by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to have been her initiative, only reinforced her ministryâ€™s lack of policy coherence and clarity on the South China Sea.
More dire still, Indonesiaâ€™s failure or reluctance to mobilize other Asean members to mention the ruling â€“ to show solidarity with the Philippines as a fellow member state, if for nothing else â€“ is proof that the countryâ€™s traditional role as the unofficial first among equals within the grouping is at its nadir. The dithering Indonesian government has failed to produce a consistently coherent stance on the Natuna Sea, as part of the larger South China Sea disputes, or to â€œinternationalizeâ€ it, as Beijing would say. This may have prompted Evan A Laksmana, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, to issue a statement of prognosis and recommendations a day after the meeting of foreign ministers in Laos concluded, which attracted the support of many foreign policy specialists.
Pivotal in the list of recommendations by Laksmana is the argument that â€œa reinvigorated Indonesian leadership is the key to Aseanâ€™s revived centrality in managing the South China Sea,â€ and that â€œespecially after the tribunalâ€™s ruling, there is no better time for Indonesia to demonstrate its commitment to a rules-based order and an Asean-led regional architecture.â€
Why Asean and Unclos?
More gung-ho Indonesian nationalists may wish to see the country, without outside help, chase off Chinese intruders in the Natuna Sea in a blaze of glory befitting the successor of the ancient maritime kingdom of Sriwijaya. But a careful study of history and the constraints on the countryâ€™s resources suggest that Indonesia would be better off with a series of measures combining a more outward-looking foreign policy, sensible military modernization and more effective forms of diplomacy and case presentation.
Since its foundation, Asean has always been Indonesiaâ€™s choice of multilateral diplomatic channel in the region. So it makes sense for Indonesia to maximize its role and leadership within Asean to balance against challenges from China in the Natuna Sea. By virtue of its size, both geographic and economic, and its status as a founding member of Asean, not to mention hosting the seat of the Asean Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia is well placed to achieve what other member states may not be able to.
Cambodia and Laos have consistently defended Chinese interests for economic reasons. Malaysia, too, seems to be wary of an economic backlash from China. Singapore, while possessing a very efficient diplomatic machine and bureaucratic competence, is in an awkward position, due to its Chinese-majority population. Singaporeâ€™s leadership on the issue would not be understood in Beijing or by the Chinese public. Already, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loongâ€™s comment on the matter during his visit to Washington elicited a mild rebuke from Beijing.
On the economic front, although China is a major trading partner, Indonesia is better able than other Asean member states to weather any backlash from Beijing over the South China Sea. A recent analysis by a France-based banking and investment conglomerate, Natixis SA, suggests that Indonesia is more immune to economic upsets from China than, say, Singapore or Vietnam. Aseanâ€™s supposed economic entanglement with China has also come under scrutiny. Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies â€“ Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, has sought to debunk the myth that China is the biggest trading partner for Asean countries. Although aggregate statistics on trade flows may suggest Chinaâ€™s top ranking, especially in imports, Cook argues that, â€œFor the six largest economies in Southeast Asia â€“ Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, respectively (also known as SEA-6) â€“ a significant share of both exports to and imports from China are the result of the location of links of regional and global production chains in China and those six economies.â€ And those chains are not controlled by Chinese firms but by ones from Japan, South Korea, the European Union and the United States.
On the diplomatic front, Indonesia has had its share of triumphs through Asean, such as its role, via Mochtar Kusumaatmadja and the late Ali Alatas, as successive foreign ministers, in brokering the peace process in Cambodia. The Cambodian case clearly shows that with the right policy and leadership, Indonesian diplomacy is capable of acting as a stabilizing force while increasing the countryâ€™s own prestige and soft power in the region. A staple of Aseanâ€™s involvement in the Cambodian peace process throughout the late 1970s to the early 1990s was its consistent efforts, in tandem with the United Nations and regional and global powers, such as Australia and the United States. Aseanâ€™s steadfast reference to the United Nations and its good offices during this period is a potent reminder of how Indonesia should conduct itself on the South China Sea issue.
Another diplomatic milestone for Indonesia also emerged in a multilateral environment, when Indonesia, under Unclos, came to be recognized in 1982 as an archipelagic state. This status, dispensing with the 12-nautical-mile limit of territorial water from land, conferred on Indonesia sovereignty over all the waters around and between all its islands as a single entity. The significance of this is obvious, because without it anything beyond the 12 nautical miles between, say, Java and Indonesian Borneo would otherwise be international waters. President Joko Widodoâ€™s vision of a global maritime fulcrum would also be technically and logistically impossible without Indonesiaâ€™s status as an archipelagic state. It is particularly pertinent in the case of the Natuna Sea, because otherwise the islands would have a body of international water between them and Borneo, making them a strategic nightmare to defend.
Although Asean remains Indonesiaâ€™s best bet to augment its own influence in regional affairs, Jakartaâ€™s clout within the organization has steadily diminished since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Post-Soeharto Indonesia has admittedly been more inward-looking, preoccupied with increasingly complex domestic political concerns, more so today under President Joko.
Even before his election, Joko â€“ somewhat naively â€“ took to task Indonesiaâ€™s diplomatic missions around the world, deeming themÂ â€œnonbeneficial to ordinary people.â€ He argued that Indonesian diplomacy should be geared toward the promotion and defense of the interests of Indonesians, both abroad and at home.
It therefore came as no surprise that the president chose Retno Marsudi as his foreign minister. Marsudiâ€™s time as ambassador to countries in the European Union had earned her a reputation as a down-to-earth diplomat with a meticulous attention to detail. One famous anecdote relates how she personally went on reconnaissance missions to Dutch marketplaces to determine how Indonesian products were doing and what bureaucratic obstacles they faced in market penetration. Indeed, as foreign minister, she has often been praised for her dedication to bureaucratic reform within her ministry. Yet this suggests she is, like the president she serves, inward-looking. Her attention to detail establishes her as a good micromanager, probably at the expense of the larger questions. Marsudiâ€™s biggest fault may well be, as a career diplomat, she has so far done a poor job of coaching a new, largely inexperienced president in foreign affairs.
Still, despite her lackluster performance, she has managed to avoid being pushed out in the two cabinet reshuffles Joko has effected to date. The ministerâ€™s redeeming virtue seems to be her loyalty. She has never contradicted the president in public or in the media. Neither has she been a media darling prone to indiscreet remarks, something that many of Jokoâ€™s reshuffled ministers were often guilty of. If so, this gives credence to the rumor that the president has very little interest in or flair for foreign policy. In the words of Greg Fealy, an Australian political expert on Indonesia, Joko displays â€œan unsophisticated view of the world.â€
Paradoxically for someone who is cavalier toward foreign affairs, President Joko has declared that his global maritime fulcrum is a key policy for Indonesia. Yet the rise of the country as a global maritime hub would surely be unsustainable without the support of an active, responsive and coherent foreign policy.
For Jokoâ€™s fulcrum to materialize, great infrastructure projects will need to be put in place: more ports, shipping routes and so on. It will also require ramping up Indonesiaâ€™s maritime security network and logistics to protect fishing, mining and trade activities generated by the fulcrum. More important, to safeguard progress on the maritime policy, the government will need a competent foreign affairs machine at its disposal, to explain, entice investment and defend the case for the project to the outside world. For a start, neighboring countries and regional powers will need to be assured of the mutual benefits of the fulcrum and that it poses no threat to them. Interestingly, Jokoâ€™s fulcrum coincides with Chinaâ€™s own global initiative, the Maritime Silk Road, ostensibly conceived with the South China Sea in mind. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping assured his Indonesian counterpart that the fulcrum complemented Chinaâ€™s Maritime Silk Road, Beijingâ€™s increasing boldness in the Natuna Sea suggests otherwise.
In a strategic sense, Chinaâ€™s unilateral claim that the northern section of the Natuna Sea is a â€œtraditional fishing ground for Chinaâ€ constitutes the first real challenge to Jokoâ€™s maritime fulcrum. Failure to rise to Beijingâ€™s challenge would undoubtedly put the grand plan in jeopardy.Â In simpler terms, if Indonesia is incapable of resisting Chinese encroachment in its northernmost waters, what hope is there to defend the rest of its vast maritime border?
Jokoâ€™s intent to defend Indonesiaâ€™s territorial integrity is real enough. In a vivid display of symbolic resolve, the president held a cabinet meeting on an Indonesian Navy corvette anchored off the Natuna Islands after Chinaâ€™s third incursion this year occurred in June. His brand of maritime, or in this case naval, diplomacy may have registered in Beijing since there have been no further incursions. But intent alone will not defend Indonesiaâ€™s interests.
Although Joko publicly pledged that he would no longer tolerate Chinese territorial transgression in the area, it remains unclear whether the declaration was chiefly for domestic consumption or otherwise. Strong as the presidentâ€™s message was, it would have been stronger still if his foreign minister had succeeded in persuading her Asean counterparts to release a more strongly worded communiquÃ© at the foreign ministersâ€™ meeting in Laos, with full support of the recent Hague arbitration ruling.
Consistency would be a great asset for Indonesia in managing the Natuna Sea issue, and yet it has so far been visibly wanting. The first incursion in 2016 took place in March, involving a Chinese fishing vessel, the Kway Fey 10078, which was spotted fishing within Indonesiaâ€™s exclusive economic zone. Indonesiaâ€™s Maritime and Fisheries Monitoring Task Force captured the Kway Fey 10078, but two Chinese Coast Guard vessels forcibly rescued the fishing vessel. The responses from Jakarta to this incident were contradictory.
Susi Pudjiastuti, the minister of fisheries and maritime affairs, vented her outrage, accusing Beijing of â€œsabotagingâ€ Indonesiaâ€™s peace efforts and â€œarrogance and disrespectâ€ for Indonesiaâ€™s sovereignty. Perhaps overstepping the reach of her ministry, Pudjiastuti told the media she would summon the Chinese ambassador over the incident. Soon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs followed suit and delivered an official diplomatic protest to the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta. Yet, as if to soften her stance, Minister Marsudi also told the press that the incident had nothing to do with the South China Sea dispute, of which Indonesia was a â€œnonclaimant,â€ and that she was unaware of any claim by China to the Natuna Islands.
The Chinese ambassador to Jakarta certainly found himself in great demand over the incident when, as if to re-establish diplomatic protocol, Marsudi said she too would summon him. But by this stage even Indonesiaâ€™s defense minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, had told the media he would summon the Chinese ambassador. President Joko, for his part, quickly instructed Luhut B Pandjaitan, the then coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, to â€œtake necessary steps to deal with the incident.â€ But he stressed that China â€œremains Indonesiaâ€™s friend.â€ Yet to demonstrate what kind of friendship he had in mind, Joko immediately dispatched naval ships to the Natunas.
In the wake of the March incursion, only Fisheries Minister Pudjiastuti displayed a consistently tough stance on China. The following month, she ordered the destruction of a Chinese fishing vessel, along with 40 other vessels, caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters. Although she had instituted the practice of destroying foreign boats caught in Indonesian waters illegally in late 2014, it was the first time a Chinese vessel had been destroyed in this way. Noteworthy was the fact that the Chinese vessel in question had been in Indonesian detention since 2009. It is interesting that its destruction was given the go-ahead after the March incident, indicative of a change of attitude at the highest level of the Indonesian government toward Chinaâ€™s threat in its northern waters.
In response to the vesselâ€™s destruction, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed â€œserious concern.â€ However, less than two weeks later, another standoff ensued, this time involving the Indonesian Navy, which had started patrolling the area. A Van Speijk-class frigate, KRI Oswald Siahaan, intercepted and fired shots at a Chinese fishing trawler, the Gui Bei Yu 27088, which had been spotted off the Natuna Islands. The frigate proceeded to seize the Chinese vessel and arrested its eight crew members.
Beijing swiftly protested the use of military weapons against a Chinese vessel, which represented an escalation in the lethality of Indonesiaâ€™s response. Yet, somehow, the message failed to sink in as a third incursion occurred in mid-June, when the Parchim-class corvette KRI Imam Bonjol 383, the very same ship aboard which Joko would later hold his gunboat cabinet meeting, encountered a fleet of 12 Chinese fishing vessels well within Indonesiaâ€™s exclusive economic zone.
The Imam Bonjol fired warning shots at the fleet and pursued and impounded one ship and seven crew members in Riau. Responding to the incident, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused Indonesia of violating international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), by firing on the Chinese fleet. Although Point 4 of the 2002 DOC between Asean members and China does indeed forbid the use of force in resolving disputes, the provision was already broken by China as far back as 2013 when Chinese Coast Guard vessels forcibly relieved an Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs patrol boat of its captive Chinese fishing vessel that had been caught in an operation off the Natunas. By this stage, judging by the invocation of the DOC, China considered Indonesia a disputant in the South China Sea. For a nation seemingly paranoid about being humiliated by foreign powers, China had a difficult choice of refraining from or reasserting its â€œtraditional rights.â€
That Beijing now sees Indonesia as a â€œclaimantâ€ in the South China Sea finds more credence in an op-ed published by the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper. The article, authored by Zhao Minghao, a research fellow at the Charhar Institute in Beijing and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China, was written in response to the Hague tribunalâ€™s unfavorable ruling for China. Accusing the United States and its allies of responsibility for the growing tensions in the South China Sea, the article ruefully discusses Indonesia as unmistakably a disputant.
â€œNot long ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited the Natuna Islands and claimed the country would speed up natural gas and fishing development there,â€ it says. â€œAt the end of June, the country's Parliament approved increasing its defense budget by 10 percent, which will be used to upgrade military facilities in the Natuna Islands. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are also discussing joint military exercise in the South China Sea.â€ More tellingly, a Global Times editorial captures the mood in Chinaâ€™s nationalist camp with regard to Indonesia. â€œChina is indeed in a dilemma,â€ it says. â€œNo reaction to Jakartaâ€™s rudeness can hardly satisfy Chinaâ€™s domestic public opinion but may make Jakarta think shooting Chinese boats is not a serious matter. But a strong reaction from China would highlight the discord between the two and push Indonesia to edge closer with the Philippines to even become a new resource at US disposal in the South China Sea.â€
Over the last five years, Indonesia has relied on its Coast Guard units under the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs to combat illegal fishing within Indonesian waters, but the operations by Chinese vessels around the Natuna Islands, often backed by the well-armed Chinese Coast Guard, have made it necessary to use the Indonesian Navy to patrol the area.
Indonesiaâ€™s last two standoffs with China around the Natunas clearly indicate that the Indonesian Armed Forces will play a much more active role in deterring illegal economic activities in Indonesiaâ€™s waters by foreign entities, which is a departure from the former reliance on the Ministry of Fisheries and Maritime Affairsâ€™ Coast Guard units. This is a powerful argument for urgently upgrading and modernizing the Indonesian Navy.
Fortunately, there are signs that Jakarta is fully aware of this need. At a coordination meeting earlier this year to discuss the 2016 State Defense Policy, Major General Yoedhi Swastanto, the director general of defense strategy at Indonesiaâ€™s Ministry of Defense, said: â€œThe priority in 2016 is the acceleration of the maritime defense capability to support the realization of Indonesia as the global maritime fulcrum.â€ Out of the nine major points mentioned in the 2016 defense paper, one specifically refers to the development of defense infrastructure around the Natunas; another calls for elucidation of the national policy on the South China Sea.
In essence, Indonesiaâ€™s latest defense directive mandates the acceleration of the Minimum Essential Force Blueprint (2010-24), at the end of which the Indonesian Armed Forces is expected to have a green-water Navy, fully competent to operate in the countryâ€™s littoral zones and capable of undertaking missions in the surrounding oceans, but with limited capacity to project its force into distant waters. By the time that General Moeldoko, the Armed Forces commander, left his post in 2015, however, only 34 percent of the blueprintâ€™s target had been reached, falling short of the optimistic prediction by Indonesian authorities of 42 percent by 2014.
However, Koh Swee Lean Collin, a naval expert and associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, opined that â€œoft-overlooked qualitative improvementsâ€ had been achieved within the Indonesian Navy. Specifically, he mentioned the PKR10514 frigate, whose air defense system had been upgraded with the VL MICA, enabling it to strike incoming aerial and missile targets at more than 12 miles, a vast improvement over the old Mistral SIMBAD/SADRAL system.
Notwithstanding the notable improvements, in view of the austere global economic climate and Indonesiaâ€™s 2016 budget, which has been revised downward by Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the acceleration of the naval modernization program may run into difficulty due to lack of funding. However, to develop a credible deterrent, Indonesia has no choice but to enhance its naval strength, bearing in mind its current annual military budget of $8 billion pales in comparison to Chinaâ€™s $141 billion military budget.Â
Historyâ€™s long shadow
Both Indonesia and China are invariably the products of their respective national histories. Hence, the reading of these histories is pertinent to our understanding of the Natuna Sea issue.
Starting from an early age, all Indonesians are weaned on the virtue of nationalism. The national school curriculum teaches the state-approved version of Indonesiaâ€™s struggle against colonialism. The countryâ€™s first president, Soekarno, believed that the teaching of the nationâ€™s history should play an important role in â€œnation-building,â€ aimed at carving out a national identity from the amalgamation of diverse local identities within the Indonesian archipelago.
Inevitably, such a project led to considerable cherry-picking to construct an almost sacrosanct national narrative by â€œofficial historiansâ€ such as the late President Soehartoâ€™s favorite chronicler, Nugroho Notosusanto. The crux of the official history-national-mythology of the Indonesian state is that modern Indonesia, though evidently the political construct of the Dutch colonialists, is a historical entity dating back to the glorious days of the ancient Sriwijaya and Majapahit empires. In short, it is a nation of respectable pedigree.
Every Indonesian student is taught that the riches of pre-colonial Indonesians incurred the greed of predatory foreign powers: from the 1293 invasion force sent by the Chinese Yuan dynasty under Kublai Khan to Java, to the gradual conquest of the archipelago by the Dutch between the 16th and 20th centuries. As a result, predator-prey reversal events rear their heads easily, often culminating in rioting or bloody rampages against those perceived as predators and their cronies. Recent research by Rosalind Hewett, an Australian academic, for example, highlights the â€œforgotten killingsâ€ and torture of Dutch civilians, Eurasians, Ambonese, Menadonese, Chinese-Indonesians and even Javanese in the employ of the Dutch, all taking place in Surabaya between September and November 1945, just after the cityâ€™s freedom fighters managed to overpower Japanese occupation forces and confiscated their weapons.
In post-independence Indonesia, ultranationalist and xenophobic explosions of mass violence continued to recur, with Chinese-Indonesians being a convenient sitting duck, such as riots in the 1960s, the May 1998 riots and recent attacks on Chinese temples in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra province. The dominant role of the minority Chinese in Indonesiaâ€™s economy is often cited as the reason they are the target of envy and hatred by the rest.
The rise of China as Asiaâ€™s hegemon has had mixed effects on Sinophobia in Indonesia. On one hand, since the fall of President Soeharto, the expression of Chinese cultural identity is no longer suppressed. China is also one of Indonesiaâ€™s biggest trading partners and its economic might has seen Indonesia at the receiving end of aid from Beijing.
Indeed, President Jokoâ€™s initial economic pivot after coming into office in 2014 was directed toward Beijing, with talk of the new Jakarta-Beijing axis â€“ in nostalgia of Soekarnoâ€™s close alliance with China in the 1960s. Joko even publicly lampooned Western-dominated international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank during a speech at the 50th anniversary of the Asia-Africa Conference in Bandung, West Java province, in 2015. This prompted speculation that he was on the verge of joining forces with nascent Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Maritime Silk Road, coupled with high-profile projects between Indonesia and China such as the prestigious Jakarta-Bandung high-speed train.Â Â Â Â Â
On the other hand, the economic dominance of Chinese-Indonesians and the prospect of even more dominance by mainland China have aroused the old predator-prey mentality and racism-xenophobia, especially among Indonesiaâ€™s less-educated nationalists and the religious far right. Of recent note are fears among Indonesian trade unions that Beijing-financed projects would employ Chinese workers instead of locals. Such fears are often manipulated by political interests, such as when Yusril Ihza Mahendra, a former justice minister and a Jakarta gubernatorial hopeful, claimed on his Twitter account that 10 million workers from China were on their way to Indonesia to take local jobs away, a figure later dismissed by the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration.
In late August, several major newspapers reported that 500 Chinese laborers were working on the construction site of a new cement plant in Banten province. Seventy of them were arrested for not having proper work permits, fueling a public mood of paranoia against the Chinese.
Indonesiaâ€™s â€œxeno-paranoiaâ€ in so many ways has its evil twin in China. The Chinese public is more nationalist than their Indonesian counterparts. Nationalism in modern China is also the product of a carefully constructed historical narrative with an emphasis on the dangers of foreign domination and the importance of a strong China. The â€œcentury of humiliation,â€ a doctrine taught to the Chinese population from a young age, instills a sense of outrage about how Western colonial powers and Japan imposed upon the Qing dynasty a series of military defeats and territorial concessions.
The desire to recoup past losses at the hands of foreign powers partially explains why Beijing remains doggedly unflinching in the South China Sea, even when, as writer and Chatham House associate fellow Bill Hayton ably demonstrates in his book â€œThe South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia,â€ the historical facts used by Beijing as the basis for its claims do not pass the litmus test.
The nationalist and xenophobic strains that pervade the collective psyches of both Indonesians and Chinese should never be overlooked when gauging the potential ramifications of the Natuna Sea dispute between the two countries. The increasingly populist nature of Indonesian politics precludes the possibility of Jakarta making too many concessions to China. Such a move would be political suicide for any Indonesian leader.
For its part, any Chinese government today can no longer rule on ideology alone, as it increasingly relies on economic performance and public satisfaction to entrench its legitimacy. The political rivalry between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang may also be reflected in Chinaâ€™s responses in the South China Sea, as the former tries to establish political legitimacy through popular patriotic defense of Chinese interests and secure his second term. Xiâ€™s own anticorruption drive has reportedly upset top brass within the military, opening the possibility of a dangerous disconnect between the president and the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army.
So, given the recent economic downturn in China and its internal power struggle, nationalism has become an important tool to rally public support. If Beijing needed proof of this it only had to see the irate comments by Chinese netizens on the ruling by the Hague tribunal. They were so virulent that state censors stepped in and deleted many of the comments in a bid to preserve Chinaâ€™s international image.
On Indonesiaâ€™s side, any major clash with China is problematic, although probably not due to Indonesiaâ€™s supposed economic dependence on China. Rather, the Chinese connection lies with the presence of millions of Chinese-Indonesians. The economically influential minority group, with a history of being targeted in acts of anger by the masses, could deal a blow to the economy if a massive capital flight occurred as it did after the May 1998 riots. The recent Tanjung Balai riots targeting Chinese temples and the property of Chinese-Indonesians, which were sparked by a personal dispute involving a Chinese-Indonesian woman, are a potent reminder of the latent Sinophobia in Indonesia and how quickly it can erupt, especially in the event of war with China.
Conclusions and recommendations
The dispute between Indonesia and China over the waters around the Natuna Islands is a potential flashpoint, threatening peace, trade and the geopolitical balance in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific. For Indonesia, it represents a security challenge the like of which it has not had to face since the foundation of the republic in 1945. The issue is also a test case for the countryâ€™s resolve and ability to create the global maritime fulcrum envisioned by President Joko.
While the internal balancing efforts in response to the dispute seem to be on the right track, with the deployment of naval patrols around the islands, the proposed acceleration of naval modernization and the economic development of the islands themselves, it remains to be seen whether the Indonesian government ultimately has the stamina to carry these efforts out. More important, Indonesia must re-establish its role as primus inter pares among Asean member states through leadership on the South China Sea issue. The Hague ruling has provided the momentum for such a role, especially as major powers such as the United States, Japan and India, along with regional powers including Australia and New Zealand, have all come out in support of the tribunalâ€™s decision.
The Indonesian governmentâ€™s sometimes contradictory responses to the issue suggest a lack of coordination and overlapping responsibilities that hamper decisive, unified policy directives. The creation of a body similar to the US National Security Council, headed by Joko and including key ministers, to deal with major crises, both foreign and domestic, is certainly worth considering.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst based in Surabaya, Indonesia.Â
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