Indonesia Ups the South China Sea Ante

Indonesian President Joko Widodo roiled the waves this week over the contentious issue of who owns what in the South China Sea, telling the Asahi Shimbun newspaper on the eve of state visits to both Japan and China that China has no legal claim to its “nine-dashed line” encompassing 90 percent of the sea. He then appeared to back off slightly, saying that Jakarta won’t side with any country in the continuing dispute.

"The 'nine-dashed line' that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law," said Joko.

The Tokyo trip was followed by a state visit to China and the interview almost certainly rankled Beijing. His remarks also took some government officials in Jakarta off guard. “That is our president,” laughed one advisor. “He speaks his mind.”

Joko later offered Indonesia’s services to play peacemaker in the Sea over the maze of conflicting claims by the littoral nations, saying in Tokyo, “When it is needed, we are ready to become a good mediator.”

Hardly a secret

Regardless of whether the comment about the legality of China’s vast claims was scripted, the sentiment is widespread in official circles in Jakarta, though not shared by most of the foreign ministry.

In stating it so bluntly, Joko showed his government’s determination to enunciate Indonesia’s core interests; it also goes hand in hand with his policy to transform Indonesia into a regional maritime power. Behind that drive is the (usually unspoken) concern about China's belligerence.

Although Jakarta has officially declared that it is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, which have ensnared Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s nine-dash line runs through waters in the Natuna region which lie inside Indonesia’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Military leaders in Jakarta in recent years have grown increasingly nervous about China’s encroachment in the Sea.

Indonesia has already demonstrated its determination to police its own waters and shocked its neighbors by capturing at least 150 small fishing vessels since Joko took office. Twenty-two of them are Chinese. Although it hasn’t sunk the Chinese vessels, the Indonesian navy has blown up and sunk vessels from Thailand, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. A handful of Chinese vessels remain impounded.

China was clearly irritated by Jokowi’s remarks in Japan, which has had its own territorial dispute for several years with China over the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Indonesian president met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 23, the respective defense ministers for the two countries signed a mutual defense pact to forge closer security ties.

As an indication of China’s pique, when Jokowi landed in Beijing, he was reportedly met at the airport by a relatively low-ranking vice minister of foreign affairs, according to an official in Jakarta. He met later with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People to deal with bilateral issues and to sign several agreements on disaster management, finance, infrastructure and other matters.

Give us your money

Indonesia is keen to snare billions of dollars in promised Chinese investment in infrastructure and relations between Beijing and Jakarta have grown steadily warmer since 1990, when the two countries resumed relations that broke down in the spasm of anti-communist (and anti-Chinese) violence following a murky 1965 coup attempt that eventually led to the rise of rightist strongman Suharto.

Joko unveiled his maritime policy during his inaugural speech last October, when he stated that “Oceans, seas, straits, and gulfs are the future of our civilization. We have been showing our backs too long to these seas, to these oceans, to these straits, and gulfs.” He appealed to the spirit of Jaleesa Jemaah, a Sanskrit-derived phrase that roughly translates as “At sea we triumph” and is the motto of the Indonesian Navy.

He enlarged on the theme last November, telling businessmen at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing that he plans to build 24 new seaports to expand Indonesia’s maritime infrastructure. Shortly afterward, he told a meeting of the East Asia Summit in Myanmar that the sea would be increasingly important in Indonesia’s future. In short, Indonesia wants to be a force between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The policy, which includes increased defense spending for the long-underperforming Indonesian Navy, signals that the country will play a major role in the South China Sea, where China and the US have been squaring off amid rising tensions over the past half-decade.

Friend or potential foe?

Not that Jakarta wants confrontation. In Beijing this week, Joko told Xi, “Indonesia is committed to enhancing cooperation with China at bilateral, regional and international levels.” He also invited the Chinese leader to attend the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Asia-Africa Summit in Bandung in April.

Nonetheless, Indonesia’s concerns over China are real. The Riau Islands and the Natuna region are home to some of Indonesia’s largest natural gas fields. They lie astride the nine-dashed line. China has not enforced its claims on the area, which is far from the Chinese coastline, however, China’s ability to project naval power from its naval base on Hainan Island is steadily growing.

With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations split over how – or whether – to contest China’s aggression, Jakarta can’t but notice that that over the past two to three years, Chinese naval forces have conducted amphibious drills near the James Shoal, only 150 km from Indonesian waters. China more recently has been building military facilities that expand its territory within the Spratly Islands.

That has forced Indonesia into pursing its own aims separately. It has appealed to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf over China’s claims on the South China Sea, asking that Beijing clarify its aims. China ignored the action. That in turn prompted Indonesia to to hold 2013 military exercises in the Riau region.

Nonetheless, China on its official maps and in its passports expanded its territory to include the disputed area. That impelled an official in the Indonesian security ministry to tell journalists, “What China has done affects the Unitary State of Indonesia.” Since that time, Indonesia’s navy has begun planning to improve its facilities in the area. The Indonesian air force also announced last year that it would upgrade Ranai Air Base in the Riau Islands to accommodate fighter aircraft and four newly purchased Apache attack helicopters.