Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits a military base in the Natuna islands during a standoff with Chinese vessels in the maritime area on January 8, 2020. Photo: Handout / Indonesian Presidential Palace / AFP

JAKARTA – When China and Indonesia’s Natuna maritime stand-off nearly boiled over last month, President Joko Widodo – a leader not known for his abiding interest in foreign relations – did what may come naturally to him these days.

He picked up the phone and called his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, just about the time the Communist Party leader was beginning to grasp the gravity of the coronavirus epidemic now gripping his country.

It isn’t known what was said on the high-level call, government sources say, but by the time Widodo paid a flying visit to the island of Natuna Besar the next day, intruding Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels and fishing boats had already begun to withdraw.

“I don’t think a lot of people realized the significance of what happened last month,” says one naval analyst familiar with how events unfolded. “They (the Indonesians) stood down Goliath. No-one expected such a strong Indonesian reaction.”

It wasn’t the first incident and it likely won’t be the last. Only days after China’s withdrawal, a 4,000-ton Chinese navy Jiangkai-class guided missile frigate floated inside Indonesia’s 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ).

That may have been in response to the Indonesian Navy sending warships into the North Natuna Sea when it became apparent that lightly-armed Indonesian Coast Guard patrol craft were not enough of a deterrent against China’s larger vessels.

Joko Widodo (C) speaks to journalists during a visit to a military base in the Natuna Islands, January 8, 2020. Photo: Handout/Presidential Palace/AFP

In the period since, China, Malaysia and Vietnam have been engaged in a three-way stand-off of their own near the disputed Vanguard Reef, 1,400 kilometers northeast of the Natunas, where Malaysian state oil company Petronas is exploring two oil and gas blocks.

Front and center in that ongoing incident is the 2,700-ton Zhaojun-class corvette 5203, armed a 76-millimeter cannon, one of the three similar vessels involved in the Natuna encroachment that are attached to the CCG’s Hainan Division situated on the South China Sea.

China’s determination to exploit what it calls “traditional fishing grounds” inside Indonesia’s EEZ may go against the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea, but bullying its neighbors in the South China Sea has become an increasingly common practice.

Usually, it’s around the disputed Spratly islands, where Indonesia is not a claimant. But Beijing wants to stamp its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, encompassed inside a vaguely-defined nine-dash demarcation line that no-one else recognizes.

Indonesia’s sea surveillance capabilities have been enhanced by its acquisition of SeaVision, a non-classified web-based US system that allows it to track the position and movement of all ships inside its equatorial waters and react accordingly.

For four consecutive months, the Indonesians have logged on to the Seaview system more times than any of the 88 other countries which use it, allowing authorities to see where a vessel has been and its expected destination – as long as the target carries an active responder.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shipmen during an operation in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP via Getty

Chief Maritime Minister Luhut Panjaitan wants to strengthen the coast guard with genuine ocean-going patrol craft, but in the meantime the government is moving ahead with plans to buy six Danish frigates with the range to patrol its maritime boundaries.

Although the Indonesian Air Force is adding drones to its inventory, it has only three Boeing 737 and two prop-driven Casa/IPTN 235 aircraft for maritime surveillance, hardly enough to cover a vast EEZ of  2.7 million square kilometers.

The government is now drawing up new legislation that will place the Coast Guard under a newly strengthened Indonesia Maritime Security Agency, known as Bakamla, and remove an overlap in responsibilities among seven different maritime institutions.

Indonesia continues to tread a careful line between China and the United States, fully aware of Beijing’s role in providing the investment and trade needed to develop its sluggish economy, but still closer to Washington as an ally on defense matters.

Widodo may not be a foreign policy wonk, but he is well-aware of the need to cultivate personal relations with China’s Xi. The telephone line between Istana Merdeka and Zhongnanhai appears to be an important tool.

Earlier this month, it was Xi’s turn. He called Widodo to reassure him the Chinese government would win the battle against the coronavirus, now known as Covid-19, saying he was committed to “the most rigorous and thorough prevention and control measures.”

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (L) speaks to China’s President Xi Jinping (R) at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP/Pool/ Tomohiro Ohsumi

Chinese Ambassador to Jakarta Xiao Qian had earlier criticized Indonesia for enforcing a travel ban to and from mainland China, pointing to the negative impact it would have on economic relations. “In this situation we need to be calm,” he said.

Although many of its citizens are skeptical, Indonesia still has no confirmed cases of the virus two months after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a global emergency as the epidemic spread across other Southeast Asian nations and now more widely to Europe, the US and Middle East.

It’s not clear how often Xi and Widodo talk, but they have met at least eight times over the past five years, including on four visits Widodo has made to China for APEC (2014), the G20 Summit (2016) and the first Belt and Road Forum (2017).

In comparison, Widodo has had only one sit-down meeting with US President Donald Trump, at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July 2017. But they are expected to meet again when the Indonesian leader pays an official visit to the US, apparently to coincide with the March 12 US-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas.

Among the invitees are Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who only this month announced his intention to scrap the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which could effectively undermine their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. 

It hasn’t been all plain sailing with Indonesia either because of the diplomatic difficulties surrounding Widodo’s appointment of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is not welcome in Washington because of a past history of alleged human rights violations.

When US officials found Prabowo was listed in the delegation on Widodo’s first planned visit to Washington in January, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was pressed into service to persuade Chief Maritime Minister Luhut Panjaitan it wouldn’t be a good idea. 

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto on the campaign trail in Jakarta, April 19, 2019. Photo: AFP Forun via NurPhoto/Andrew Gal

A month later, in November, the same message was reportedly conveyed to Prabowo at the ASEAN Defense Ministers-Plus retreat in Bangkok, although it apparently was not raised at a cordial session he had with US Defense Secretary Mark Esper on the sidelines of the meeting.

Widodo was to have flown on to Washington after a visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he signed a US$23 billion investment package. Instead, the US trip was postponed because Widodo’s camp felt that the Trump impeachment trial would be too much of a distraction.

Officials on both sides are apparently worried that if Prabowo came on the trip, he would awaken what one described as “a sleeping giant” and derail the progress being made towards a return to full military engagement between the two sides.

That centers on combat training between the US Special Forces and the Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus), a well-trained, but once-notoriously brutal unit where Prabowo and Panjaitan, both retired generals, spent most of their military careers.

According to Indonesian sources, a group of Kopassus officers recently quietly engaged in the first full-on combat training at the 1st Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, since a 15-year East Timor-related military embargo was lifted in 2005. 

Special forces training between the two countries actually resumed in 2010, but it was limited to non-lethal exercises and depended on Kopassus removing all officers who had allegedly committed human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh and Papua over the previous decade.

Kopassus troops prepare for the opening ceremony of a joint anti-terror drill at the national police special operations force headquarters in Kelapa Dua, Depok, West Java. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Even then, it has taken another 10 years to reach this point, despite the extensive human rights education the regiment has undergone and the fact that many of today’s soldiers were children during president Suharto’s New Order era when most of the abuses in question were committed.

Indonesia could take on more importance as a regional strategic ally if Duterte follows through on his decision to scrap the VFA, though Jakarta apparently favors Japan as a partner in providing development assistance to Natuna, where Indonesia has been strengthening its military presence.

“If [Duterte’s] decision holds, it will complicate trying to keep China on a constructive course, but only at the margins,” says one former high-ranking US official. “At this point the mutual defense treaty is becoming more of a liability than an asset, but I wouldn’t recommend we abrogate it now.”

Since the Philippines’ Subic naval base was closed to US forces in 1991, Guam – 1,200 kilometers to  the east — has taken over as the 7th Fleet’s forward operating base, home to four nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class submarines and a replenishment point for its Japan-based carrier battle group and other surface ships.