Indonesian President Joko Widodo aboard a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter / Presidential Handout

China is subjecting Indonesia to maritime gray-zone tactics – competitive acts between states short of all-out warfare – in the North Natuna Sea. China pursues these objectives in the knowledge that Indonesia will fail to respond properly.

The latest North Natuna Sea crisis between December 2019 and January 2020 saw the incursion of Chinese fishing vessels, backed by coast guard and maritime militia, into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Indonesian maritime-law enforcement officials claim these incursions have not stopped since then – they have simply become less publicized. China upped the ante in August 2021 after a Chinese survey vessel spent seven weeks conducting seabed mapping inside Indonesia’s EEZ.

Jakarta has been relatively silent on the matter despite up to nine Indonesian navy and coast guard patrol craft observing the encroachment under apparent orders not to intervene. A December 2021 Reuters report suggests that China has in effect crossed Indonesia’s “red line” by demanding that Indonesia stop drilling in the area.

China believes that it has “overlapping maritime rights” with Indonesia, according to its interpretation of an “informal understanding” reached with Jakarta about maritime territory in the 1990s.

But Beijing’s behavior is less about waging a legal dispute than it is a gradual strategic push to get Jakarta inadvertently or implicitly to acknowledge China’s maritime rights. Now that China controls key strategic areas in the South China Sea, it feels more confident in pushing the envelope.

Hegemonic powers are expected to expand until they cannot take any further territory or face sufficient resistance – but Indonesia has failed to push back. Its diplomatic response to the incident was tepid, even if officials insist that they have conveyed their discontent privately. Its security response was also haphazard, inconsistent and largely symbolic.

There is certainly no strong economic or political pushback from Jakarta.

Indonesia and China are at maritime loggerheads amid rising Chinese incursions into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Image: Twitter

Indonesian policymakers are unclear about the goal of pushing back against China. Some believe that getting China to renounce its “nine-dash line” claims to the South China Sea is simply unattainable.

Others like Indonesian President Joko Widodo prefer crisis resolution over prevention to avoid strategic noise crowding out his domestic agenda. Many believe that China’s behavior is merely a law-enforcement issue, not a strategic problem.

This lack of clarity is the first sign of strategic failure. Rather than pursuing a limited and achievable goal of stopping China’s illegal incursions into the North Natuna Sea, Indonesian policymakers settle for a diluted response. These hollow acts, such as holding a cabinet meeting aboard a warship, can be sold domestically as “strongly asserting” Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Such muddled thinking is partly due to Indonesian policymakers’ insistence that the country does not stake a claim in South China Sea disputes.

Indonesia has a strong bilateral relationship with China and its position in the South China Sea is legally recognized under international law. This means Indonesian policymakers are prone to viewing gray-zone incursions as short-term maritime law-enforcement problems, rather than a wider strategic gambit by China.

The lack of clarity leads to a lack of strategic coherence needed to integrate a wider range of diplomatic, military and economic instruments into an all-out pushback against Chinese encroachment.

Instead, Indonesia compartmentalizes the problem by separating its bilateral ties with China from the North Natuna Sea issue, the South China Sea dispute and great-power politics. This approach is ostensibly reasonable given the complexity of those issues and the fact that China is the most domestically polarizing foreign-policy issue of today.

The Indonesian elite are also increasingly dependent on the private benefits and public goods China provides, especially those extended during the Covid-19 pandemic. But as they worry more about public scrutiny over dealings with China, Indonesian strategic policy becomes less transparent.

China’s gray-zone strategy succeeds when there is a lack of transparency in Indonesia. Policymakers seem unable to conceive of the range of options between surrendering quietly or going to war over fisheries.

These flaws explain Jakarta’s failure to launch a meaningful response to Beijing’s gray-zone tactics. Indonesian policymakers have yet to seriously contemplate the various options available, such as establishing minilateral maritime alliances or reviewing Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects.

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

But if Widodo is not interested in directing a strategic response, each stakeholder – from the navy and coast guard to the Foreign Ministry – will develop its own disparate plan of action.

An ideal response would involve Indonesian policymakers articulating a limited and attainable goal of pushing back against China in the North Natuna Sea. With measurable goals, Indonesia could better specify the appropriate tools to achieve them. But more important, Indonesia needs to integrate – not just coordinate – these tools of statecraft to respond properly.

None of these outcomes are likely to occur soon. Maritime “encounters” and “crises” between Indonesia and China will recur every now and then. China’s gradual inroads will continue even if Indonesia claims rhetorical victory in each instance. The underrated success of gray-zone tactics lies in the strategic delusion that Indonesia is holding on to.

Evan A Laksmana is a senior research fellow at the Center on Asia and globalization at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute for International Policy. A version of this article was first published here in an Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies paper.

This article was first published by East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy within the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. It is republished under a Creative Commons license.