Indonesia’s Ambiguity in the South China Sea is Hampering its Interest

Indonesia always says that it formally neither claims any area in the South China Sea, nor has conflicts with China in the North Natuna Sea. However, the reality is, it has overlapping claims in the North Natuna Sea which China considers some parts of the area as part of its nine-dash-claims encompassing 90% areas of the South China Sea. Indonesia’s ambiguity also allows another claimant country in the area to take advantage of it. It has been showcased by Vietnamese fishermen’s encroachment in the North Natuna Sea. Vietnamese and Chinese fishermen have entered and fished areas in the northern part of the Natuna Sea which in this case is Indonesia’s EEZ.

               In the dynamics of South China Sea disputes, Indonesia positions itself as an ‘honest broker’ and ‘confidence builder’ such as hosting the Workshop on Managing Potential Conflict in the South China Sea since 1990 and actively encouraging the finalization of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea that can be traced since 1992. Such an identity is built because of its status as a natural leader in Southeast Asia.

               However, Indonesia has not always been a neutral party, it sometimes directly challenges China’s claims. For example, in 2010 Indonesia submitted a diplomatic note to the United Nations as a response to China’s submission to the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. It stated its position on China’s nine-dash-line, in which the Indonesian representatives stated that uninhabited rocks, reefs, and atolls do not deserve an exclusive economic zone. Therefore, Indonesia argued that ‘the so-called nine-dash-line lacks international legal basis and is tantamount to upsetting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).’ Again, Indonesia sent a note to the United Nations as a reaction to Malaysia’s 2019 continental shelf submission objecting to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. The document reiterated Indonesia’s position as a neutral party in South China Sea disputes. However, it also directly stated that Indonesia indirectly agreed with the 2016 Tribunal’s ruling (Permanent Court of Justice) between China and the Philippines stating no maritime features in the Spratlys do not entitle EEZ dan continental shelf. Indonesia’s indirect agreement with the Tribunal’s ruling contradicts its official position which has never openly endorsed the decision.

Indonesia’s Challenge to China

Certainly, Indonesia’s challenge to China’s claims is not only through diplomatic ways but also by military means, though it is much subtler than the former. In 1996, just two years before Suharto’s fall the Indonesian Navy (TNI AL) conducted an exercise near the Natuna. The Indonesian Navy reconducted an exercise in the same area in 2008 during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. During the Joko “Jokowi” Widodo Administration, the Indonesian Armed Forces established Joint Regional Defense Commands (Komando Gabungan Wilayah Pertahanan) consisting of three commands respectively located in Riau, East Kalimantan, and Papua led by a three-star general from the three branches. The Riau’s base is crucial in maintaining the Navy’s preparedness near the Natuna. The importance of the Natuna Islands made the government launch its coast guard, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA). It is led by a three-star general, especially a vice-admiral from the Navy, and directly reports to the president. BAKAMLA has become inseparable in scrutinizing the sea, though compared to the Navy, the agency has a very low budget (about $25 million).

Thus, in this regard, Indonesia does not fully position itself as a neutral party, rather Indonesia has stepped up to challenge China’s claims. Though, Indonesia will never be a claimant party in South China Sea disputes. Yet, it certainly reflects Indonesia’s policy of ambiguity. It persistently maintains ambiguous policy because Indonesia could retain its sovereignty in the Natuna waters, its strategic partnership with China, and its leadership in Southeast Asia through its brokering role in the dispute. The fact that the Natuna contains invaluable hydrocarbon resources makes Indonesia carefully formulate policy related to the Natuna, including not offending China.

I argue that Indonesia’s policy of ambiguity in the South China Sea hampers its interest because it allows other claimant countries in the area to enter Indonesia’s EEZ not only Chinese fishermen but also other fishermen from Vietnam and Malaysia.  Through illegal fishing alone Indonesia lost $4 billion a year and by 2016 about 280 foreign vessels fished illegally in just one area in the North Natuna Sea. The phenomenon is of course disadvantageous for Indonesian fishermen near the Natuna. The majority of people who live there depend their livelihood on the fishery, to be exact there are 6,130 fishermen households or 7.4% of Natuna’s population total. The impact of illegal fishing is exacerbated by the fact that many of them use trawl nets which are draining fish resources in the area. It differs from Indonesian fishermen who mostly use smaller and traditional fishing boats.

In this context, I do not encourage a complete change in Indonesia’s policy on the South China Sea, rather it should assert its right more openly in the region. Because Indonesia’s EEZ overlaps with China’s nine-dash line, it must formulate particular policies, for example by implementing more assertive internal balancing while simultaneously enmeshing China with regional institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia’s direct challenge through diplomatic notes is the first step of this particular policy. The establishment of Kogabwilhan also reflects Indonesia’s seriousness to tackle the issue. Internal balancing must be combined with the renegotiation and diplomacy of maritime borders. Thanks to the effort of diplomats and international law experts, Indonesia has concluded EEZ borders with Vietnam after negotiating for 12 years based on UNCLOS. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) also should resume shuttle diplomacy that was conducted by the then-Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa who visited Manila, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Bangkok, and Singapore in a day to get a united voice from ASEAN member countries on the DOC, COC, international law, self-restraint, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Though it did not achieve all of the objectives, it was effective and an alternative way for peaceful resolutions in South China Sea disputes.

Aditya Pratama
Aditya Pratama
Master's Student of International Relations