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Jakarta Post

Keep calm, carry on

  • Editorial Board

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, January 6, 2020   /   08:02 am
Keep calm, carry on China's Coast Guard ship 3303 was passing near Imam Bonkol warship 383 when Indonesian Navy was trying to catch Han Tan Cou fishermen's boat entering Indonesia's Natuna waters on June 17. Navy caught the Chinese-flagged boat suspected for illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. (Antara/Photo Courtesy of The Navy's Western Region Fleet Command (Koarmabar))

Ringing in the new year, we must first applaud the government's strong start to 2020, which is already shaping up to be another roller-coaster ride for international relations.

Faced with China's literal testing of the waters around the Natuna Islands, Jakarta declared firmly that there would be no exception to violations of Indonesia’s sovereign rights.

The lack of a uniform response from the Chinese government, the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Coast Guard only serves to accentuate the blemish on Beijing’s lofty internationalist façade: that it still can be an unreliable patron of the rule of law.

As a nation bound by its Constitution to uphold global peace and order, Indonesia can choose to make life harder for China by becoming a constant reminder of its obligations under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

After all, China’s sweeping claims over the South China Sea, based on folk tradition, have been invalidated by an international tribunal ruling in 2016, a legal fact that is not lost on Indonesia.

And so, with its recent (and unnecessary) trespass into the North Natuna Sea, Beijing looks to have shot itself in the foot, although credit is due to the Indonesian defense forces for their unwavering commitment to upholding sovereignty and compliance with international law.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this mess.

For President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s Indonesia, cooperation matters more than confrontation. But the onus is on China to be consistent in its pragmatism and show more goodwill to relieve unproductive tensions and maintain warm and friendly relations with Indonesia.

China may be the preeminent power in Asia, but it will need Indonesia on its side if it is to continue brandishing its image as the world’s largest promoter of the free-market principle. Even in the case of the flagship Belt and Road Initiative, Indonesia has proven itself a hard customer.

To keep its economy from slowing in the most efficient and straightforward way possible, China Inc. will need to maintain the good graces of all its trade partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

At the risk of overstating the nation’s influence, no country in Southeast Asia is more susceptible to anti-Chinese sentiments than its largest economy, so any reprisal from Indonesia makes for bad business. No doubt the United States will swoop in if there is ever such an opening.

We must always remember that business thrives on the rule of law, on legal certainty to protect one’s business interests and rights. There is little doubt that Indonesia will welcome cooperation from a reliable partner.

But China must deliver on its promises to ASEAN and respect its obligations to international law, by concluding at the soonest opportunity a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, so that it becomes a set of guidelines that preserve regional peace and security.

If China can agree to keep calm and carry on cooperation by respecting what little its partners ask of it, then we might still be able to experience the Asian Century of truly shared prosperity.