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See no China: Indonesia's South China Sea policy

Jakarta | Fri, June 17, 2016 | 10:53 am
See no China: Indonesia's South China Sea policy An illuminated globe shows the South China Sea at a museum in Pathumthani, Thailand, May 1. (AP/Charles Dharapak))

The world’s third-largest democracy will continue to reject any form of provocation and direct confrontation with China in the South China Sea. Despite repeated incidents in its exclusive economic zone and territorial waters off its Natuna Islands chain, Indonesia continues firmly on this policy path.

Six compelling foreign policy considerations shape Indonesia’s “see no China” policy.

First, Indonesia’s “foreign policy priority” puts a premium on economic diplomacy. Under Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia consistently emphasizes its commercial interests, inbound foreign investments and future infrastructure assistance projects above pompous assertions of territorial sovereignty.

Jakarta understands that China is the main economic growth engine for Southeast Asia and the larger Asian region. Similarly, Beijing acknowledges Indonesia’s economic centrality in Southeast Asia and its growing influence in international economic forums, like the G20. 

President Xi Jinping even announced China’s Maritime Silk Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) plans for the first time in Indonesia’s legislature back in 2013. 

Today, Jakarta’s US$44 billion trade with China remains strong and first quarter investments from Beijing experienced a 400 percent increase from last year. Admittedly, China’s 14 percent realization rate on its investment pledges is much smaller than Japan and South Korea’s 70 percent realization rate. 

However, the growing size of China’s gargantuan economy and its aggressive investment pledges easily offsets, even generously overcompensates for, its low realization rate.

Beijing’s Hang Bao (red envelope) economic diplomacy keeps countries in an upbeat “festive mood” of economic growth while handing out incentives to “child-like” smaller powers and “single-unmarried” independent regional powers, like Indonesia, that are not yet locked into an alliance with the West. 

Beijing makes Indonesia its second largest investment destination after the US and is banking on Jokowi’s economic reform packages.

Second, Indonesia’s “foreign policy proximity” gravitates toward great powers that actually have a plan for the region. 

Indonesia’s Maritime Fulcrum initiative edges closer toward China’s Maritime Silk Road plans simply because Beijing has repeatedly proven that its “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) grand design is fully backed by a strong political will at home and massive financial resources to be distributed abroad. 

Washington talks about maintaining its presence, rebalancing and pivoting to Asia, but its commitment tends to be overstretched or entirely misplaced. 

Economically, a regional trade arrangement like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes the region’s main engine of growth, China, makes little sense. Militarily, US and Australian insistence on conducting provocative “freedom of navigation” operations in the disputed waters contributes nothing to regional stability. 

Although China’s grand design is imperfect and patchy, it seems to be the only game in town worth looking into.

Third, Indonesia’s “foreign policy precedent” compromises its moral authority to criticize China. The incident involving China’s coast guard by Indonesia’s distant outermost islands pales in comparison to Australia’s ongoing unilateral and military-led Operation Sovereign Borders that repeatedly tramples on Indonesian territorial waters and lands people on the shores of Indonesia’s most populous main island, Java. 

Numerous past “surprise visits” by US and Australian warships irritates Jakarta because they abuse the “freedom of navigation” in “international waters” rhetoric, disregarding Indonesia’s designated archipelagic sea lanes and contiguous maritime zone.

Jakarta prefers regional and multilateral maritime initiatives that exclude external powers. Therefore, Western powers slapping “freedom” bumper stickers on groundless and borderline provocative military operations in the South China Sea impresses no one in Jakarta.

Similarly, Indonesia has no moral authority to denounce China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea because Australia had also declared and unilaterally imposed a maritime identification zone that extends 1,000 nautical miles from its shores, eating into two-thirds of Indonesia’s maritime territory and its most sacred internal waters, the Java Sea.

Fourth, Indonesia’s “foreign policy principle” dictates an “independent and active” position. Jakarta’s flexible hedging discourages it from locking into an alliance with the West, taking sides in great power rivalries, or inviting external powers into the region by escalating tensions with China. 

This is why Indonesia is joining both the US-led TPP and the China-led AIIB, while welcoming both Chinese port-based infrastructure investment projects and US assistance in maritime capacity building. Indonesia’s “see no China” policy is a particular interpretation of its foreign policy principle — not an abnegation of it.

Indonesia’s 2006 Lombok Treaty with Australia is the only unjustified aberration that betrays this core foreign policy principle. Indonesia, however, can easily offset this imbalance by deepening security and defense cooperation with China and perhaps formulating a similar “Natuna Treaty”. 

Fifth, Indonesia’s “foreign policy practice” rejects Chinese military assertions in Southeast Asia, but welcomes its institution-building engagements. 

Currently, embryonic forms of a potential Sino-centric institutional order is emerging through the AIIB, the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralism, China’s OBOR initiative and its Silk Road Fund, alongside numerous regional comprehensive economic partnerships in which Beijing’s influence is growing powerful. 

Lastly, Indonesia’s “foreign policy perspective” does not view China as a clear-cut security threat. Jakarta’s depiction of the Natuna incidents as a fishing issue was intended to downplay and reframe the incident as an economic “maritime resource dispute”, not a political “territorial sovereignty dispute”. 

Indonesian state oil and gas company Pertamina’s plans to develop the East Natuna gas fields in maritime areas claimed by China will stir up problems down the road, but this is likely to be downplayed and reframed again as a mere “maritime resource dispute”.

Again, Indonesia will continue to reject any form of provocation and direct confrontation with China in the South China Sea. Indonesia feels neither security nor assurance from provocative actions of distant intervening Western powers that can cause a war that will burden the region. 

In the meantime, Western powers must not resort to Sinophobic rhetoric of inflated security threats, simply because they are too poor to outbid China’s Hang Bao economic diplomacy and too distracted to outmaneuver its “One Belt, One Road” diplomatic offensive. 

 

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The writer is executive director of the Marthinus Academy, Jakarta.

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