China must tread carefully in protest over Natunas

2:11:00 AM

In an official letter dated Aug 25 to the Indonesian embassy in Beijing, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested against Jakarta’s decision in July to rename the south-western part of the South China Sea, which falls under its maritime jurisdiction, as the North Natuna Sea.

While Indonesia has yet to issue a formal response, questions must be asked as to whether Beijing’s latest move against Jakarta was an overreaction to what is essentially a non-issue.

In its protest note, the Chinese Foreign Ministry argued that the South China Sea was “an internationally accepted name” and warned that changing it would result in “complication and expansion of the dispute”. In other words, Beijing is now accusing Indonesia — through its act of re-designation — of becoming a claimant or party to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The subtly provocative charge is interesting, given that Indonesia has repeatedly insisted that it is not a claimant state, even claiming its role as an “honest broker” for the maritime squabbles. While it is true that the territorial disputes today chiefly involve China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, Indonesia walks a fine line between neutrality and active participation.

Although Jakarta would want nothing more than to avoid a conflict with Beijing, China’s nine-dash line, which underscores its claim to the disputed sea, overlaps with Indonesia’s maritime waters north of Natuna Islands by some 50,000sq km, a fact freely acknowledged by China in the letter to the Indonesian embassy.

Incursions and illegal fishing by Chinese vessels within the Natuna Sea were common until recently, when the Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries actively pursued, impounded and set fire to foreign vessels caught fishing in Indonesian waters. For some years, Jakarta has been more than willing to overlook these incursions by Chinese fishing vessels rather than jeopardise its economic ties with Beijing.

President Joko Widodo has publicly welcomed Chinese investment in Indonesia and remains an enthusiastic supporter of China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, seeing it as a possible source of funds for his ambitious infrastructure projects across the country.

Accordingly, Indonesia’s response to growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has been largely symbolic in nature, evidently designed to discourage further encroachment by China rather than to mount an outright challenge.

Take for example Jakarta’s reaction to an incursion by Chinese fishing vessels into Indonesian waters in June last year.

Firstly, Mr Widodo held a Cabinet meeting on an Indonesian Navy corvette anchored off Natuna Islands, the area where most of the Chinese maritime incursions took place.

Secondly, arguably the only concrete action taken by Jakarta was its decision to increase the defence budget by 10 per cent, ostensibly to ramp up military facilities on the Natuna Islands.

Thirdly, Indonesia has so far refrained from galvanising Asean (Association of South-east Asian Nations) member states into a united front against China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. The communique of the 30th Asean Summit in Manila earlier this year should disabuse anyone of the notion that any founding member state, Indonesia included, wanted an en bloc affront against China.

Fourthly, before the celebration of Indonesia’s 72nd year of independence on Aug 17, the government announced the renaming of the sea north of the Natunas as the North Natuna Sea. The gesture was meant primarily for domestic public consumption. Populist nationalism is alive and well in the country and, predictably for a nation obsessed with symbolism, the announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by the Indonesian public. Ardent supporters of Mr Widodo even listed the renaming of the sea as a “great achievement” by the president.

Economic concerns may not be the only thing holding Jakarta back from a direct confrontation with Beijing over the North Natuna Sea.

There are also military considerations, as Indonesia’s capabilities are seriously dwarfed by China’s, a fact known within Indonesian military circles but never publicly acknowledged by the government. After all, Indonesia’s annual military spending of around US$8 billion (S$10.9 billion) is peanuts compared with China’s US$141 billion.

Nevertheless, it would be a grave miscalculation on China’s part to assume that Indonesia, if pressed too far, would let Beijing get away with acts that could be construed as derogatory to its sovereignty.

Both the Indonesian and Chinese peoples are nationalist to a fault. The adverse reaction by Indonesians to Malaysia’s unintentional flip of its flag in an official publication of the Sout-east Asian Games is a mild preview of how Indonesians would react if China pushes its objection to Indonesia’s renaming a section of its own waters further.

Public opinion no doubt counts more in Indonesia than in China since the former holds direct presidential elections while the latter does not. To be seen kowtowing to Beijing’s assertiveness would be political suicide for any Indonesian leader. It is not a stigma that any Indonesian government can afford to be hit with.

Indonesians, though fragmented along ethnic and religious lines, are usually united when “confronted” by a common foe. Weaned on nationalism from an early age, or at least on its superficial and symbolic manifestations, most would agree without hesitation that they value the country’s sovereignty over economic interests.

Escalating tensions with China over sovereignty issues would also be detrimental towards the minority Chinese-Indonesians, whose loyalty has always been questioned by many “indigenous” Indonesians. The 2014 anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam following a military skirmish between Chinese vessels and the Vietnamese Coast Guard are a reminder of what could happen in a worst-case scenario.

Evidence suggests that Indonesia does not seek confrontation with China in the South China Sea arena. But if pushed into a corner, it will defend its sovereignty at any cost. This is something Beijing must consider when dealing with Indonesia.

In June last year, when an Indonesian naval frigate fired warning shots at a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels caught in Indonesian waters, the state-sponsored Global Times observed that “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”.

The logic could easily apply to the issue of Indonesia’s renaming of the North Natuna Sea. It is wise to let sleeping dogs lie.


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