On the Razor’s Edge: Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy

By Scott Bentley

Aerial view of Indonesia's Greater Natuna Islands  in the South China Sea. Source: stratman's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Aerial view of Indonesia’s Greater Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Source: stratman2’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Ann Marie Murphy wrote in PacNet in March that recent developments represent a “game changer” in regard to Indonesian policy on the South China Sea. Disagreement has emerged over the significance of a statement by Air Commodore Fahru Zaini that “China has claimed…waters [off Indonesia’s Natuna Islands] as [its] territorial waters,” from which Murphy drew her conclusions. Some Indonesian scholars question whether or not the statement represents the official position of the Indonesian government, much less a wider shift in policy. There is fertile ground for disagreement, with quotes from senior Indonesian officials seemingly contradicting Fahru.

So what to make of the Indonesian government’s policy regarding the South China Sea? The basic reality is that a dispute does exist between China and Indonesia, but Jakarta refuses to officially recognize it. This dispute is by no means new, despite reports suggesting otherwise, and Indonesia’s longstanding policy of non-recognition remains essentially unchanged. But equally important shifts are underway, including changes to Indonesia’s military force posture.

While acknowledging that one of the dashes in China’s infamous “nine-dash line” map does overlap with Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands, it does not seem that Fahru’s statement represented an official acknowledgement that a dispute exists. The overlap has been privately acknowledged for decades, and while the comments do indeed mark the first time an Indonesian official has publicly admitted as much, it appears unlikely that they signal a policy shift.

Recent comments by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa forcefully reiterated existing government policy that “it must be made crystal clear that between Indonesia and China there are no outstanding or overlapping maritime territorial disputes.” There is a nuanced difference between publicly admitting an overlap and officially recognizing that a dispute exists. It is on this diplomatic razor’s edge that Indonesia’s South China Sea policy currently rests.

For Indonesia to admit that a dispute exists would be to provide legitimacy to the legal basis of China’s claims. China has clarified that it makes no claims to the Natuna islands themselves. That means there are no land-based features from which it can legally claim the waters around the islands, as would be required by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This is the rationale driving Indonesia’s refusal to admit that a dispute exists. Jakarta stated in a 2010 note to a UN body that China’s nine-dash line map “clearly lacks international legal basis and is tantamount to [upsetting] the 1982 UNCLOS.”[1] To officially admit that a dispute exists would be to recognize the nine-dash line as a legitimate claim, which would risk undermining the core principles of UNCLOS.

Yet Murphy is right to point out that the strategic ambiguity that has enabled Indonesia to maintain a pretense of neutrality is increasingly under strain as a result of recent Chinese actions. These actions have led to a number of serious incidents between Indonesian and Chinese maritime security forces over the last several years in the waters off the Natuna Islands. In March 2013, and Indonesian patrol vessel arrested several Chinese fishermen but was forced to release them in the face of harassment by a Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel that arrived on the scene. They suggest that the current Indonesian policy and defense posture is failing to deter an increasingly assertive China.

As a result of these incidents and what seem to have become regular Chinese patrols in the disputed waters, concern has been growing within the Indonesian military. This concern was evident in the comments made by Air Commodore Fahru, as well as more recent comments from armed forces chief General Moeldoko, who noted that on a trip to China in February he “explained to my [Chinese] counterpart that we are a sovereign country, and we will do what is necessary to protect our sovereignty.”

In fact, the only substantive announcement that came from Moeldoko’s trip was that Indonesia would be shifting its defense posture toward the Natuna Islands. That shift may have been underway for some time, but by announcing it in Beijing, Moeldoko made his desired audience clear.

While the recent comments by Fahru may not represent a change in official Indonesian policy, they are indeed significant and presage a shift in strategic thinking, at least within the military leadership. It is unclear to what extent such thinking extends to their civilian counterparts, and whether a new consensus on the issue will emerge within the current or subsequent administration.

Either way, in order to more effectively protect Indonesia’s national interests in the South China Sea, it will be key for Jakarta to situate its diplomatic policy within a wider strategic framework. This will have to reach beyond mere diplomatic pronouncements to include not only actual force posture decisions, but also serious thinking about new operational concepts and coordination among various organizations responsible for maritime security.

The potential disjuncture between civilian and military forces suggested by the March 2013 incident, which was initially denied by the Defense Ministry, should provide renewed impetus to refocus Indonesia’s wider strategy on strengthening its deterrent capability and upholding pivotal rules and norms in the maritime domain.

Mr. Scott Bentley is a PHD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy (UNSW@ADFA), currently conducting research on maritime security strategies in Southeast Asia as part of his dissertation on the topic.