An Indonesian officer on guard in front of a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Indonesia has abandoned its previous quiet diplomacy to openly confront China’s repeated incursions in its claimed waters, marking the entry of Southeast Asia’s largest nation into the South China Sea disputes.

The spark: the presence of Chinese paramilitary vessels off the coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, a maritime area rich in oil, gas and fisheries which is included in China’s expansive and controversial nine-dash line map claim to the wider sea.

Following the intrusion of dozens of Chinese boats including two coast guard vessels into Indonesia’s claimed waters, Jakarta last month lodged a “strong protest” with Beijing and summoned its ambassador to Jakarta to express its diplomatic displeasure.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry accused China of a “violation of [its] sovereignty” and said Beijing’s claims of traditional rights in the area have “no legal basis” and were “never recognized under UNCLOS”, the acronym used for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Jakarta’s hardening stance vis-à-vis China will likely strengthen the hands of other regional claimants, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

With an eye on the Philippines’ 2016 landmark arbitration award at The Hague, a decision which effectively nullified the bulk of China’s claims to the sea, Vietnam and Malaysia have recently threatened to take China to international court over their festering sea disputes.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

According to Indonesian authorities, at least 63 Chinese fishing vessels and two coast guard ships unilaterally entered Indonesia’s territorial waters around the Natuna Islands beginning in late December. Many of the Chinese boats are still in the area, signaling a potential standoff.

The situation was primed to come to a head. Indonesian authorities have repeatedly accused China of engaging in massive illegal fishing activities in its waters, with the direct aid of Chinese paramilitary and coast guard forces roaming just over the horizon.

The Natuna Islands are located about 1,100 kilometer (684 miles) south of the Spratly Islands, which are actively contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and China.

China has stood firm to its position. “[China’s] position and propositions comply with international law, including UNCLOS, said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in comments to media. “So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters.”

“The China Coast Guard were performing their duty by carrying out routine patrols to maintain maritime order and protect our people’s legitimate rights and interests in the relevant waters,” he added.

The Chinese foreign ministry official was also quick to undermine the validity of the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague in favor of the Philippines, a verdict that discredited Beijing’s nine-dash line map under international law.

“The so-called award of the South China Sea arbitration is illegal, null and void and we have long made it clear that China neither accepts nor recognizes it,” Geng said. “The Chinese side firmly opposes any country, organization or individual using the invalid arbitration award to hurt China’s interests.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo looks out to sea in a December 2018 government handout photo.

In recent years, Indonesia has expressly avoided alignment with the United States by advocating for its own vision of a regional security architecture where China is a major stakeholder.

At the same time, US-Indonesian strategic relations are on a distinct upswing, witnessed in Washington’s move last year towards normalizing ties with Indonesia’s special forces, a unit it had previously sanctioned for rights abuses.

Indonesia’s tough diplomatic language towards China thus represents a significant departure from its long-held policy of avoiding conflict with all great powers, a position Indonesia expert Evan Laksamana refers to as its “pragmatic equidistance” approach.

Earlier this decade, Indonesia’s then-foreign minister Marty Natalegawa advocated for a unique “Indo-Pacific” community based on principles of non-aggression and peaceful diplomacy under the aegis of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

As current Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi put it in a media interview, “Indonesia always sees cooperation [as] better than rivalry by promoting a mutually beneficial approach.”

These efforts eventually culminated in the adoption of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific document, which expressly rejects siding with the US against China in the South China Sea and on other relevant regional issues.

Now, however, China’s maritime expansionism has forced Jakarta to rethink that neutral position.

According to Indonesian authorities, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing has severely affected the country’s 2.4 million-strong fishing community, recently driving almost half of them (45%) out of work. The United Nations has put Indonesia’s annual IUU losses at around US$1 billion.

The demolition and sinking of a pirate fishing ship by the Indonesian Navy at the Pangandaran Sea, West Java. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/ Donal Husni

In response, previous minister of maritime affairs and fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti adopted an aggressive “sink the vessels” policy, which led to the impoundment and blowing up of hundreds of illegal fishing vessels including from China.

“What they [China] are doing is not fishing, it is transnational organized crime,” the outspoken Indonesian minister said in late 2018, according to media reports .

“We have had several disagreements [with China] on issues of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, they still disagree that it classifies as transnational crime. But mostly these are China-origin vessels [with] multinational crews.”

In 2017, Indonesia renamed the maritime area as the “North Natuna Sea” to assert its claims against Chinese intrusion and claims to “traditional fishing grounds” in the area.

Though technically “neutral” and a non-claimant in the South China Sea, Indonesia’s hardened stance carries big potential implications for the region’s strategic alignment.

Among the key nations which negotiated the UNCLOS, Indonesia was the first regional state to push for an extended continental shelf claim beyond its 200 nautical mile EEZ in the northwest area of Sumatra Island back in 2008.

The following year, both Vietnam and Malaysia made a joint submission to assert their extended continental shelves in the South China Sea, legally challenging China’s claims at the UN.

Beginning in 2015, Indonesia has pressured China to clarify the precise legal basis and parameters of its nine-dash line map claims, while advocating broadly for the upholding of international law in the area.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

During the 2018 ASEAN-Australia summit, Indonesia even went so far as to call for ASEAN joint patrols in the South China Sea to help de-escalate tensions.

It’s toughening criticism of China will likely embolden Vietnam, the current ASEAN chair, and Malaysia, which recently submitted an additional extended continental shelf claim at the UN, to up the ante in the South China Sea this year.

While Jakarta will still likely avoid direct confrontation with China, it is now an active and vocal player in the disputes.

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