Indonesia Seeks Local Partners to Offset Beijing in South China Sea

China Coast Guard
China Coast Guard vessel as seen from the deck of an Indonesian Navy warship (Indonesian Navy)

Published Jan 23, 2022 5:11 PM by The Lowy Interpreter

By Huynh Tâm Sáng]

Tensions with China over the South China Sea have prompted Indonesia to invite maritime security officials from five ASEAN member states – Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – to meet in February to discuss a possible joint response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

Jakarta’s bold move is worth consideration as Indonesia is a non-claimant state in the disputed sea and has kept studious silence to avoid diplomatic conflict with China. However, as de facto leader of ASEAN, Indonesia has been persistently challenged by China’s aggressive moves. Over the past two years, the two countries have reciprocally summoned their envoys to “lodge protests over the activities in Natuna waters” – a region contested by both Indonesia and China.

Recently, China has repeatedly demanded that Indonesia halt oil and gas drilling near the Natuna Block inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as the block lies within Beijing’s contentious “nine-dash line”, which was invalidated by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016.

The standoff between Indonesia and China in the second half of 2021, coupled with Beijing’s constant objections to Jakarta’s development projects in the South China Sea, has put an end to Indonesia’s quantum of solace. In the end, Jakarta could no longer stay aloof from the South China Sea disputes.

Jakarta’s determined approach towards closer collaboration with regional marine-facing countries confronting China’s “grey zone” tactics could provide Indonesia with a much-needed uplift. Ideally, the collaboration would provide an informal minilateral platform to deal with common challenges and counterbalance China’s maritime belligerence.

Unlike multilateral cousins, minilateral settings tend to focus on narrower and more specific themes with exclusive membership, thereby proving more effective in solving issues that matter to those directly involved. As aptly put by regional security academic Sarah Teo, like-minded states in minilateral groupings could have their decisions reached faster than those in multilateral architectures. In this sense, a grouping centered on maritime security cooperation and the prevention of potential conflicts in the South China Sea is likely.

Indonesia has invited maritime security officials from five ASEAN member states to meet in February to discuss a possible joint response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness (Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia)
Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam are claimant states of the contested waters. Indonesia and Singapore are non-claimant states but share the interests of freedom of navigation and the utmost importance of preserving peace and security in the South China Sea. The six countries agree on the need to exercise self-restraint and solve the disputes by peaceful means and would be exposed to danger if China were to turn the South China Sea into its internal lake. In essence, they should be considered as like-minded countries when it comes to the security and stability of the South China Sea.

Some countries are increasingly determined to counter Beijing’s ramping up efforts in the South China Sea. The Philippines has protested China’s deployment of armed fishing vessels and its incremental moves in the South China Sea. Vietnam lodged protests following Beijing’s unilateral fishing ban and military transport mission in the disputed sea. In October 2021, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador in Kuala Lumpur to protest against the encroachment by Beijing’s vessels in its EEZ off the island of Borneo.

However, these countries should be cautiously optimistic. Besides coercive measures, China could seek to offer economic gains to relatively weaker countries in return for toning down their concerns over Beijing’s maritime militia presence in the South China Sea. In July 2020, Brunei’s insistence that negotiations between countries should be managed bilaterally “syncs with Beijing’s position” due to the sultanate state’s economic reliance on Beijing. Additionally, regional claimant states have been working independently instead of forming clusters of like-minded countries, in part due to the lack of a bandmaster in the South China Sea.

In recognising these issues, Indonesia should take the lead by being firm in its principles, which includes managing tensions between countries via sincere dialogues and legal mechanisms that comply with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Jakarta also needs a flexible approach in which it carves out workable schemes and practical options that could engage all participating nations in dealing with regional challenges.

As it is far from easy for the six ASEAN countries to be on the same page, their officials should take a step-by-step approach rather than embracing an ambitious plan from the outset. They should frame dialogues and consultations as the basic tenet of the working schemes while making pragmatic calculations regarding “the convergence of interests, threat perceptions and practical feasibilities” among member states before launching them as a grouping.

In the forthcoming roundtable discussion, the six ASEAN representatives should navigate regional challenges by crafting collaborative schemes in the spirit of sharing experiences and fostering brotherhood, as underscored by Vice Admiral Aan Kurnia, chief of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla). Organising bi-monthly meetings, sharing classified intelligence, and updating maritime briefings could help share experiences, enhance mutual understanding, and avoid potential misperceptions among members.

The time is ripe for Indonesia and its counterparts to work closely and effectively. Leaders in Jakarta should forge a shared perception of unity among participants by highlighting the importance of working hand-in-hand as no country can navigate the South China Sea challenges alone. Jakarta is well positioned to make this potential grouping a reality.

Huynh Tâm Sáng is a lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Faculty of International Relations and a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation. 

This article appears courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.