Managing provocations: What the South China Sea ruling means for Indonesia

The eyes of the world are focused on China and the Philippines following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on 12 July on the South China Sea. The USA’s next move, and how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should respond, have also been in the spotlight. What has slipped mostly under the radar, Koh Swee Lean Collin writes, are the actions of Indonesia in response to possible contingencies in the face of a somewhat uncertain future.

President Jokowi paid a high-profile visit to the Natuna Islands to stress Indonesia's sovereignty
IN MARCH THIS YEAR, Indonesia found itself embroiled in controversy after Chinese coastguards intervened in Indonesia’s detention of a Chinese trawler, Kway Fey 10078, in waters off the Natuna Islands. It was an incident that caused no small amount of disquiet in Jakarta, which has long sought to distance itself from the South China Sea squabbles.

Despite acknowledging Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, Beijing had claimed these waters as “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” within its infamous nine-dashed line South China Sea claim.

This claim not only puts into question Indonesia’s ability to effectively enforce its sovereignty and jurisdictional rights in these waters, but also the credibility of its Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF) vision, launched by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in November 2014.

The Kway Fey 10078 incident galvanised Jakarta to harden its stance in the aftermath. Not only did Jokowi stress his commitment towards realising the GMF vision; the Indonesian Government began to assert its sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, including plans for a major military buildup. More ominously, Jokowi paid a high-profile visit to the islands, during which a limited cabinet meeting was held to announce new initiatives to develop the local economy. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Navy started to detain Chinese fishing boats; even firing warnings shots in one recent incident.

These moves were perceived by Beijing as nothing less than an embarrassing affront.

There were calls within Jakarta to make use of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s South China Sea ruling of 12 July to underscore law enforcement in Natuna waters, especially since Beijing’s nine-dashed line claim had been invalidated. However, it would be a mistake to think that China will back away from the Natuna waters.

Soon after the ruling, Chen Shiqiu and Ruan Zongze, members of an advisory committee to the Chinese Government, called for bilateral talks on the Natuna fisheries issue.

China's ‘conciliatory’ façade

Yet behind this ‘conciliatory’ façade there have been strident calls by some Chinese scholars and officials for their Government to toughen its stance. Some of them, whom I recently engaged with in Beijing ahead of the South China Sea ruling, proclaimed that with its growing military power China should no longer tolerate its ASEAN neighbours’ actions, including the arrest of Chinese fishermen.

The implications for Jakarta are clear – the constraint imposed by the tribunal ruling on Beijing’s behaviour would be tenuous at best. With post-arbitration nationalistic emotions running high at home, Beijing has little choice but to toughen its position, including challenging its ASEAN neighbours’ maritime law enforcement activities.

Clearly the Natuna fishery row with China is not going to vanish any time soon. Beijing would almost certainly not renounce its rights to the “traditional fishing grounds” overlapping into Natuna waters even if both countries were willing to negotiate. 

The question is whether Jokowi’s recent ‘pivot’ to the Natuna Islands is going to be sufficient in dissuading future Chinese provocations similar to the Kway Fey 10078 incident. For now, the Indonesian Navy’s latest strong showing against Chinese fishermen seems to have had some effect. But the question is how long before Jakarta becomes distracted by other priorities?

With a vast archipelago afflicted by diverse maritime security challenges Jakarta might find itself hard-pressed to respond if Beijing ramps up its aggressive behavior in the Natuna waters. These challenges extend beyond illegal fishing to militant threats to shipping in the Sulu/Celebes Seas and human trafficking in the Arafura Sea, as well as the challenge of a navy which still serves as Indonesia’s premier maritime defense and law enforcement agency yet at the same time suffers from persistent capacity shortfalls.

"Increased weapons procurement”

The solution is not more negotiations, as history has shown that Beijing would still behave assertively while advocating talks, but in Indonesia’s maritime defense and security capacity-building efforts based on its Minimum Essential Force (MEF) blueprint.

During last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue, I posed a question to Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu about realising those MEF targets by 2024. The minister responded that “as the economy progresses, the MEF… will of course be adapted in response to any developments and to the situation. When the economy improves, there will clearly have to be increased weapons procurement.”

However, economic uncertainty in the foreseeable future could potentially stymie Indonesia’s plans. 

Given this, it might be worthwhile for Jakarta to consider revising the MEF goals for its navy, as I have previously proposed. This might also allow Indonesia to respond more effectively to the complex and ever-evolving situation in its strategic maritime environment, not just the South China Sea.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. First published in The Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum. Read the original article