How likely is an enhanced Indonesian role in the South China Sea dispute?
A recent incident involving Indonesian and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea has opened the possibility for an enhanced Indonesian role in the maritime dispute. Whilst neighbouring claimants would welcome this, Indonesia is likely to proceed with caution.
Tensions in the South China Sea escalated in March, when a Chinese coastguard ship took aggressive action against an Indonesian patrol boat, after the latter seized a Chinese fishing boat for fishing within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Seized in waters off Indonesia’s Natuna islands, the Indonesian patrol boat was towing the fishing trawler away when a Chinese coastguard ship gave chase, collided with the trawler and ultimately allowed it to escape.
Indonesia hits out at China
In an unusual move, Indonesian officials called a press conference following the incident to publicly denounce Chinese actions. Usually conciliatory in its dealings with China, an official reportedly stated that China’s actions were provocative and fitted a pattern of becoming more assertive.
The decision to publicise the event came as something of a blow to China, which has generally relied on Indonesia to remain outside of the South China Sea maritime dispute.
Indonesia does not have any overlapping territorial claims with China in the South China Sea. However, China’s nine-dash line does overlap with Indonesia’s EEZ around the Natuna Islands.
The dispute led some to speculate whether Indonesia might begin to play an enhanced role in the maritime dispute.
Indeed, neighbouring Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines and Malaysia would welcome a greater Indonesian role, which would undoubtedly add weight to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) ability to respond to the crisis.
The benefits of good relations with China
Up until now, Indonesia has preferred to remain on the sidelines of the South China Sea dispute in order to maintain positive relations with China.
Economic engagement is a major factor in Indonesia’s reluctance to upset China. In 2014, Indonesia’s imports to China were worth US$ 17,606 million, second only to Japan. China was Indonesia’s top imports partner, with imports worth US$ 30,624 million.
Whilst an enhanced maritime role for Indonesia cannot be ruled out, these high levels of economic engagement mean Jakarta is certainly going to proceed with caution.
A cautious approach is compounded by the fact that Indonesia’s naval capabilities are relatively modest and in need of major defence spending in order to modernise and expand.
Considering the levels of economic engagement with China, and the current state of Indonesia’s maritime army, a belligerent attitude towards China might wisely be seen as unhelpful, bordering on dangerous.
This is not withstanding China’s obvious attempts to placate Indonesia following the recent maritime dispute.
As the international community speculated whether the Sino-Indonesian relationship had been irrevocably damaged following the clash, it was announced that navy personnel from both states would hold a joint exercise in the South China Sea to boost military cooperation.
A warning for China?
Clearly, it is going to take more than March’s maritime clash for Indonesia to be drawn into the South China Sea dispute. If anything, the clash in March may have acted as a reminder to China that it cannot afford to be complacent in its dealings with Indonesia.
If China continues to act assertively in the region, Indonesia will have little option but to push back, especially if it feels its sovereignty is in risk of being violated.
If pushed, Indonesia may also decide it has no option but to enhance cooperation with regional maritime claimants and the United States.
This is something China will want to avoid at all costs.