Conflict Escalation in the South China Sea: Measuring the Direction of Indonesia’s Maritime Policy

South China Sea is the most vital commercial route for the global logistics industry and an important economic sub-region in the Indo-Pacific.

The South China Sea is a strategic water area that stretches between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and several Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. The region contains an abundance of natural resources from marine biota, as well as oil and natural gas reserves. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that there are around 11 billion barrels of oil reserves and 190 trillion cubic feet of 4,444 natural gas reserves in the South China Sea (Ogi Nanda Raka Ade Candra Nugraha 2021).

In addition to its natural resource potential, the South China Sea is the most vital commercial route for the global logistics industry and an important economic sub-region in the Indo-Pacific. The total value of trade travelling through the region reached US$3.37 trillion in 2016, including 40% of the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) trade. According to the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), 50% of all global oil tankers pass through the region. This makes it three times more than the Suez Canal and more than five times the Panama Canal (Citradi 2020). When viewed from the value of exports between countries passing through this region in 2016, China dominates, as in the following table:

Source: (Databoks 2020)

The data above shows that the South China Sea is a strategic area for the Chinese State so that it seeks to control the region to diversify its economy and strengthen regional connectivity, resulting in an escalation of conflict in this region. Disputes in the South China Sea involve several countries claiming overlapping territories. International agreements have been made to establish the boundaries of claims, as well as provide a clearer picture of which countries have rights to certain areas. However, China ignores the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and asserts its territorial rights in the South China Sea, which it calls the “nine-dash line”. This claim was made in 1947, and China has been making it ever since. menggunakan berbagai argumen hukum, sampai hadir di wilayah tersebut untuk mendukung klaimnya tersebut (DetikNews 2023).

Threats to Indonesia’s Maritime Sovereignty in the South China Sea.

China’s claim to parts of the North Natuna Islands contradicts the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982) which states that Indonesia has legal rights to the North Natuna area, based on its EEZ and continental shelf. This claim has led to tensions between the two countries, with Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels entering Indonesia’s EEZ and interfering with Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty in the region. Chinese interventions in Indonesia’s EEZ have actually occurred in 2010 and 2013. However, the diplomatic steps taken by the Indonesian government were fairly quiet, making them less known to the public (Herlijanto 2022).

In March 2016, patrol officers from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) were intervened by a Chinese coast guard vessel when it was about to take action against a Chinese-flagged fishing boat entering Natuna waters, and similar incidents have occurred recently (Setkab.go.id 2016). When China lodged a protest over Indonesia’s offshore drilling in 2021, it showed that the conflict escalation entered a new and more complex phase. China’s manoeuvres in Indonesia’s EEZ region demand the Indonesian government’s consistency in maintaining sovereignty in border areas through both militaristic and diplomatic approaches.

The Indonesian Government’s Response to the Escalation of the LCS Conflict

Indonesia has taken a militaristic approach in response to China’s manoeuvres in Natuna waters, increasing military presence and developing maritime infrastructure in the region. The policy is characterised by increased military patrols, the dispatch of warships, and the installation of radar systems to monitor activities in these waters. These actions aim to protect Indonesia’s national interests and maintain stability in the Natuna region (Rusydi 2023).

President Joko Widodo through Presidential Regulation Number 85 of 2021 budgeted IDR 12.2 trillion for strengthening marine security in Natuna, which was earmarked to fulfil the adequacy of the Navy’s defence equipment by 40.59% and Bakamla by 44.17 per cent (CNN Indonesia 2021). Militaristic actions were also shown by initiating a Joint Combined Exercise (Latgabma) with ASEAN countries called ASEX 01-Natuna (Asean Solidarity Exercise) in the Natuna waters in August 2023. This activity aims to strengthen and sharpen the military capabilities of Southeast Asian countries in maintaining peace, prosperity and security in the South China Sea Region (Puspen TNI 2023).

Referring to Indonesia’s 2015 Defence White Paper which states that disputes in the South China Sea are disputes that must be handled “wisely” due to their complexity and potential to escalate into armed conflict (Maritimefairtrade, 2023), Indonesia also uses a diplomatic approach that prioritises efforts to strengthen maritime law, diplomacy and negotiations, and international cooperation.

As a step to strengthen maritime law, Indonesia ratified (UNCLOS 1982) through Law No. 17 of 1985 concerning the Ratification and Enactment of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which confirms that the North Natuna Sea area is included in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is 200 nautical miles from the base line from which the width of the territorial sea is measured, where the Republic of Indonesia has sovereign rights to explore and exploit, manage and conserve biological and non-biological natural resources (Maatri, Sualang, and Sinaga 2023). In addition, Indonesia has taken steps to change the name of the South China Sea to the North Natuna Sea in 2017 in an effort to clarify its sovereignty claim over the region, despite receiving rejection from China.

As a diplomatic measure, Indonesia proactively seeks regional cooperation to resolve disputes in the South China Sea. Indonesia invited five other Southeast Asian countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam – to meet in February 2022 to discuss possible joint responses to continuing tensions in the region. The effort emphasises the importance of unity and a coordinated approach among countries that share common interests in the region (TheDiplomat 2021). The Indonesian government also built a Pos Lintas Batas Negara (PLBN) on Serasan Island, Natuna Regency as evidence of the country’s presence in the border areas.

Bilateral Relations as a Conflict Reducer

Conflicts in the South China Sea region are feared to have an impact on bilateral and regional relations between Indonesia and China. Therefore, both China and Indonesia are trying to defuse the dispute over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) dispute in the Natuna Waters. This is done to maintain stability and good relations between the two countries and as a step to enhance international cooperation through cooperative and persuasive maritime diplomacy, in accordance with Indonesia’s Vision as the World Maritime Axis.

Source: (Databoks 2023)

Co-operative relations in almost all sectors mean that the two countries will seek peaceful means rather than conflict in order to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship. According to the author, a diplomatic approach will benefit both parties more than militarisation. Therefore, it is very important to close the space for intervention in the form of military support, joint exercises and political declarations from other parties (outside the region) that can complicate regional dynamics.

Demilitarisation of the South China Sea issue will increase trust and cooperation among regional countries and thus contribute positively to resolving territorial and maritime disputes. The use of the Navy should only be seen as an instrument of diplomacy, not as a force of war, in the context of the South China Sea dispute. This should be based on the application of international law governing territorial waters. The importance of sustained diplomatic efforts and the development of an inclusive and comprehensive maritime security strategy will be more effective in upholding Indonesia’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Wawan Rahmadi
Wawan Rahmadi
Wawan Rahmadi, Postgraduate Student of Master of Management and Public Policy program, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta.