Indonesia Calls China’s Bluff on South China Sea Claims

Indonesia adds to pressure from Malaysia, Vietnam

Indonesia’s burst of belligerence against a Chinese fishing fleet that belatedly pulled back from its exclusive economic zone is being regarded as a signal that the littoral nations of the South China Sea have had about enough of Beijing’s bullying.

Head of the Indonesian Military Headquarters Information Center, Major General Sisriadi, told Indonesian media on Thursday afternoon that Chinese-flagged fishing boats and their Coast Guard ships had left the North Natuna area, the scene of the confrontation.

Jakarta sent reinforcements including scrambling four Indonesian Air Force F-16 jet fighters to patrol the area and deployed six warships after the discovery of two more Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the North Natuna Sea off the Riau Islands, adding to the three already there.

President Joko Widodo flew to the area on January 8 in an indication of how seriously Indonesia took the affair, which began in mid-December when the Chinese fishing fleet showed up. Sovereign rights extend to 200 nautical miles of its EEZ, with full sovereignty within 12 nautical miles of its territorial seas.

“The Indonesians are going quite far and being very blunt, quite unusual for them,” a Jakarta source said in an interview. The aggressiveness is led by Moeldoko, the retired general and chief of staff of presidency for Jokowi, as the president is known. Moeldoko was formerly commander of the armed forces and as long ago as April of 2014 wrote of his concerns about China’s incursions into the South China Sea in an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal.

With Malaysia and Vietnam also initiating claims over major portions of the sea, the Indonesian action in calling the Chinese bluff is certain to catch the attention of major powers eager to blunt China’s growing expansionist claims, said a Hong Kong-based defense analyst. The US has been seeking vainly to counter Chinese claims to the islets and rocks it has expanded for most of the decade, claiming the US Navy is protecting freedom of navigation over one of the world’s most important waterways, through which pass a major part of the world’s commerce, and running 7th Fleet exercises close to the Chinese installations with little effect.

“The timing on all sides - including Malaysia – is interesting and appears coordinated, with the quite skillful Indonesian use of ambiguity between the military, diplomatic and political responses,” said the analyst. “I'd like to think the US – or indeed the Five-Power Defense Arrangement countries [ the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore] who have a collective interest in part of the region – are ensuring that both countries and Vietnam are receiving actionable intelligence such as satellite imagery, communications intercepts and related analysis to a inform them of relevant PLA Navy and Coast Guard deployments and possible reinforcements and minimize the potential for misunderstandings between the various friendly navies and the Chinese.”

Mahfud Md, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, and Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, backed Moeldoko against admonitions by Luhut Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for Maritime Affairs and a Jokowi confidant, and Prabowo Subianto, the defense minister, both of whom urged going slow.

In 2017, the Indonesian government took a major step forward in confronting China’s South China Sea claims with an announcement that it was renaming a part of the sea in its territory the “North Natuna Sea” despite a Chinese diplomatic note written in Mandarin that Indonesia to stop using the term on official maps and documents. The name encompasses an area north of the Natuna islands that partly falls within China’s “nine dash line,” by which Beijing claims the sea stretching 1500 miles from its mainland coast almost to the shores of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

China has been pushing around the nations that abut the South Sea for since 2009 over its claims of hegemony over almost the entire sea with a mixture of intimidation, naval patrols, localized blockades, oil rig deployments, ramming of fishing vessels and constructing extensive facilities on small islands and sub-surface shoals. In 2016, it ignored a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration on a case brought by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that occupation of islets and below-tide specks in the South China Sea was illegal, and proceeded to build them into major installations that Beijingen insisted weren’t military but appear capable of handling military jets.

Despite the victory, then newly-elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte weakened his country’s case, saying it would take a “back seat” in his relations with China. As Asia Sentinel’s David Brown reported at the time, “China will dominate the South China Sea unless it is checked. The United States and China’s East Asian neighbors can curb China’s creeping imperialism, but only if and when they agree on how to share the costs and risks of convincing Beijing to alter course.”

So far, there has been little convincing going on. In 2014, China deployed its deep-sea oil drilling rig Haiyang 981 into disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast, sparking a standoff that almost erupted into a shooting war, with more than 100 naval and paramilitary vessels guarding the rig and its ancillary vessels. Despite the victory in The Hague over its territorial claims, Duterte has largely continued to let the Chinese do whatever they want in its coastal waters. Over complaints by other nations, China has largely done what it wanted to.

However, spines appear to be stiffening with Indonesia’s tough new attitude. As Asia Sentinel reported on January 6, Malaysia, in a decision made by Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir himself submitted to the United Nations Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf in an area between its Borneo states, Sabah and Sarawak, and the southeast coast of Vietnam.

The claim goes beyond the 200-nautical mile to include the continental shelf beyond it. That backs up a joint claim by Vietnam to the whole area in a direct challenge to an infuriated China, which re-emphasized its nine-dash line claim.