Indonesia flexes maritime muscle in South China Sea

Indonesia flexes maritime muscle in South China Sea

Hamid Sellak

Breaking from its traditional role as mediator between competing interests in the South China Sea, Indonesia has increasingly asserted its own maritime claims in the resource-rich waters.

This shift in Jakarta’s policy began after a June 2016 incident in which the Indonesian Navy fired on a Chinese fishing boat it said was operating illegally. It impounded the boat and took much of the crew into custody. China said the incident happened in traditional Chinese fishing grounds, although Indonesia responded that it was protecting the sovereignty of the waters around the Natuna islands, which it claims.

Despite that conflict, China’s overall response to the incident — and to Jakarta’s policy shift — has been muted.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, declared in October 2016 that his government “would never compromise on claims around the Natuna islands” and marked his words by visiting the islands during military exercises. In July 2017, he renamed part of the South China Sea the North Natuna Sea. (Pictured: Arif Havas Oegroseno, Indonesia’s deputy minister for maritime affairs, points to the North Natuna Sea on the new Indonesian map.)

Although Beijing recognizes Jakarta’s sovereignty over the islands, some of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. “The Natuna islands actually have a population and are administered by Indonesia,” said Rafiq Dossani of the Rand Corp. “When China made its claim, Indonesia objected. They resolved it with China explicitly agreeing that the Natuna islands would not be considered part of Chinese territory.”

The Jokowi administration is redesigning its entire approach to maritime security, Dossani explained, adding that its biggest challenge is policing thousands of miles of Indonesian coastline against illegal fishing and other criminal activity.

“Fisheries are politically far more sensitive, as they affect directly millions of livelihoods in Indonesia and China,” Dossani said.

Overfishing and environmental pollution are depleting near-shore fisheries. To protect its resources, Indonesia decided to get tough, Dossani said. As far as China is concerned, it seems to be working.

Earlier in 2017, Indonesia destroyed 81 illegal fishing boats. Of the total, 46 were from Vietnam, 18 from the Philippines, some were from Malaysia and six were illegal Indonesian boats, Dossani said.

“But since last year’s incident, none were from China,” he said. “China has been quite careful in trying to monitor how its fishing boats are going into Indonesian water.”

China’s interests in Indonesia as part of its Maritime Silk Road initiative, which aims to promote trade connectivity among Indo-Asia-Pacific countries, could explain Beijing’s moderate reaction to Jokowi’s policy shift.

“China can’t afford to take its eye off the South China Sea because it has got potential adversaries like Vietnam ready to take advantage of any lapses,” Dossani said. “But I don’t think China is seeing Indonesia as one of those parties that it particularly has to worry about.”

 Hamid Sellak is a FORUM contributor reporting from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.