South China Sea Conflict: Indonesia’s Goals and Strategies Through the ‘ABC Triangle Conflict Model’

The escalation of the South China Sea conflict raises significant concerns about regional stability and international relations.

The escalation of the South China Sea (‘SCS’) conflict raises significant concerns about regional stability and international relations. At the end of 2023 and throughout early 2024 the dispute between the People’s Republic of China (‘China’) and the Republic of the Philippines (‘Philippines’) intensified, centring around the Philippines’ Palawan Island and near Hainan’ water of China[1].  The conflict became more violent when the Chinese Coast Guard used water cannons against Philippine supply vessels attempting to reach the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship serving as an outpost[2]. China’s aggressive action, although not resulting in immediate casualties, posed serious risk to the lives of those onboard and escalated the already high tension between the two nations[3]. The SCS is shared by China, Taiwan, and some countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (‘ASEAN’), and under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS[4]) it is the obligation of these countries to cooperate peacefully to manage marine resources. China’s territorial claim through its ‘9-dash line’ strategy overlaps with those exerted by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and efforts taken by ASEAN and other parties to de-escalate the dispute achieved minimal results. Indonesia, whilst being a non-claimant party in the conflict, has significant interest on the maintenance of regional security and stability. Through Galtung’s ‘ABC (Attitude-Behaviour-Contradiction) Conflict model[5] this policy brief aims to ascertain factors that drive the violent conflict and analyse countries’ different attitudes, behaviour, and contradictions, and how these elements influence the (de)escalation of the conflict. Insights from this analysis are used to establish policy recommendations for the new Indonesian Government that will take office in October 2024.


The South China Sea (SCS) is strategically important and holds vast natural resources, including rich marine biodiversity, significant oil reserves, and natural gas deposits. Once the SCS’ resources were discovered the Chinese government recognised its significant contribution to its economic development[6]. Due to SCS resources and geographical importance many countries dispute the territorial sovereignty, mainly China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, together with Thailand, Indonesia, and Taiwan[7]. Although the SCS conflict has lasted for decades, China’s bold claims began with the nationalist Kuomintang Party marking the area with an “11-Dash Line” on a map after Japan’s surrender during World War II[8]. When the People’s Republic of China (‘PRC’) was established in 1949 under Mao Zedong, it revised the claim to a “9-Dash Line” in the 1950s by removing two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam; these claims continue today[9]. China has launched three major military actions: in 1974 on the Paracel Islands, in 1988 near Fiery Cross Reef against Vietnamese forces, and in 1995 against Philippine troops, incidents which prompted political opposition from ASEAN against China’s aggressive behaviour[10].

The 1982 UNCLOS provides a legal framework governing all marine and maritime activities, specifying that an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines sovereign countries’ territorial sea[11]. China signed the UNCLOS in 1982 but only ratified it on 25 August 1996[12]. To address the conflict in 2002 ASEAN’s States and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct (‘DOC’) of Parties in the South China Sea, underscoring their commitment to the United Nations’ principles for the peaceful resolution of disputes and adherence to international law, as outlined in UNCLOS[13]. However, meeting this commitment is challenged by the current escalating conflict between China and the Philippines. This phenomenon and Indonesia’s position and actions in the conflict are explained through Galtung’s Conflict triangle model[14], summarised below.

The ABC model emphasises that conflict and its (de)escalation results from the combination of three elements: attitude, behaviour, and contradiction. Attitudes (e.g., negative perceptions and emotions held by conflict parties) can result in mistrust, fear, or hatred. These lead to different behaviours (i.e., actions or reactions expressed or asserted to defend parties’ positions) which are reflected in actions including dialogue and negotiation or violence and coercion. Contradiction relates to the underlying incompatibility or discrepancy between the needs, interests, or values of the parties involved in the conflict. The SCS conflict can be explained through this model, specifically regarding the current conflict escalation through increased violent conflict and coercive actions amongst conflict parties.  The three elements of conflict influence and reinforce each other creating a vicious cycle of escalation.

Illegal Unreported Unregulated (IUU) fishing within the SCS: Indonesia’s attitude, behaviour, goals and actions

As officially stated, the Republic of Indonesia (‘Indonesia’) is a non-claimant state in the SCS conflict although it has repeatedly clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands[15]. Moreover, since four ASEAN Members have claims of SCS territorial water that overlapped with those of China the issue is central to ASEAN summits, including that held in Bali in 2011[16]. In 2010 tension increased as China reinforced its territorial claims and declared its “historical rights” to the SCS in a diplomatic note sent to the United Nations[17]. Following these claims China asserted rights over Indonesia’s EEZ in the northern Natuna Islands leading to Indonesia’s involvement in the conflict[18] specifically related to illegal fishing in its EEZ.

Illegal Unreported Unregulated (‘IUU’) fishing often occurs in foreign waters and involves breaking national laws that violate fishing regulations and restrictions. Unreported or operating without proper oversight, IUU fishing endangers the sustainability of marine biodiversity and is a significant threat to regional food security[19]. In 2015 circa 12% of global fish catch came from the SCS making it one of the world’s most productive fishing zones and a crucial source for regional and global food security[20]. However, one-fifth of global fisheries’ catches, valued between $10B and $23.5B each year, are estimated to come from IUU fishing[21]. This phenomenon, and the resulting conflict between fishermen from other nations, increases when fishing capacity exceeds available national resources, leading fishermen to expand their activity outwards[22]. Indonesia’s estimated losses from IUU fishing reached $10 to $23B annually and over $80B annually due to poor fisheries management[23][24].

Using coercive action, in 2016 China implemented the ‘Grey Zone Strategy’ with mass illegal fishing in Indonesia’s territory of Natuna waters[25]. Through early warnings, the Indonesian army decided in May 2016 to open fire and detain the crew of one ship, while eleven others escaped[26]. China claimed that the incident was typical for traditional fishing grounds and accused Indonesia of ‘abuse of military power’[27]. Vietnam is also involved in illegal fishing in Indonesia’s waters.

Indonesia’s attitude and behaviour towards the conflict within SCS is to maintain zero-tolerance towards IUU fishing and is committed to taking strong action in combating it[28]. Its goals are to maintain the country’s maritime territorial integrity and preserve its resources, goals which are communicated through the following actions. Strict regulations placed illegal fishing as a criminal offence under Law No 45/2009 on Fisheries[29], and through legal action in 2017 by renaming its EEZ as the “North Natuna Sea”[30][31][32]. By removing the word ‘China’ this renaming action shows the following:  (i) Indonesia’s capability to counter China’s territorial claim of the islands while also declaring the legitimacy of its own maritime sovereignty, and (ii) its commitment to preserving its maritime resources and economic interests while upholding international law, particularly UNCLOS. Though the renaming action led to a decrease in IUU fishing activities until 2019 incidents have risen since 2020[33]. Another action was the establishment of the Task Force for Eradicating Illegal Fishing in 2015 under Presidential Regulation No. 115/2015[34]. This strengthens enforcement against IUU fishing and protects the country’s maritime resources. Furthermore, Ministerial Regulation No. 37/PERMEN-KP/2017 outlined the Standard Operational Procedures for the task force’s law enforcement activities[35]. These actions further illustrate Indonesia’s behaviour of a proactive and structured approach to addressing the problem, thereby ensuring the sustainability of its marine resources.

Indonesia’s role through ASEAN: (de)escalation of conflict and regional stability

The escalation of violent conflict within the South China Sea (SCS) poses a significant threat to the stability of the region. During the ASEAN Summit in 2022 President Widodo, while emphasising Indonesia’s commitment to regional stability, stated that ASEAN should be a region of peace and stability, and also strive to resolve the SCS conflict[36]. Under Indonesia’s 2023 chairmanship, significant progress was made in advancing negotiations of the Code of Conduct (‘COC’) between ASEAN and China[37]. Indonesia also continues to promote confidence-building measures (‘CBM’) to reduce tensions, foster regional development, and maintain ASEAN’s unified stance on SCS issues[38]. Its role as a mediator and facilitator in these negotiations highlights the Country’s dedication to regional stability and adherence to international norms[39]. Indonesia positions itself as a crucial player in fostering dialogue and cooperation,  expressing its specific attitudes and behaviour towards the SCS conflict.  Galtung’s ABC conflict model explains that Indonesia’s behaviour to actively engage in the COC negotiations, and propose frameworks for dispute management, reflects the country’s attitudes of collaboration, compassion, and trust towards the conflict and involved parties.  Indonesia’s proactive behaviour and actions are aimed at de-escalating violent conflict and supporting peace and stability in the region.

Indonesia’s leadership and diplomatic acumen within ASEAN and globally have historically been significant. It has often acted as ASEAN’s representative when addressing regional disputes[40], including mediating the conflicts between Vietnam-Cambodia, Thailand-Cambodia, and the Philippines-Moro National Liberation Front[41]. Indonesia also played a central role in the Vientiane Declaration on Transition from Informal to Formal Employment towards Decent Work Promotions[42]. which has direct impact on the welfare of fishermen and ship labourers who are often involved in IUU fishing.

The history of successful mediation highlights Indonesia’s ability and credibility to foster collaboration and negotiation amongst conflict parties, reflecting its attitude of ‘positive sum’[43]. Indonesia’s goal of achieving regional stability is achieved through its positive behaviour in maintaining respectful relationships with other conflict parties while being determined to secure its national interests. These attitudes, behaviours and goals are imperative within the Preamble to the Country’s 1945 Constitution, which states that Indonesia will actively participate in implementing a world order based on freedom, eternal peace, and social justice[44]. The term “intermestic” refers to the interconnection between domestic and international environments, where Indonesia’s foreign policy must ensure regional stability to preserve the country’s internal state[45]. Indonesia’s foreign policy of “independent and active” also aims to serve national interests (including economic interests) whilst also cooperating with other nations to achieve world peace and social justice[46].

Contradiction: conflict and the dependency dilemma

Are conflict parties prepared to sacrifice their economic interests to achieve settlement of the conflict within the South China Sea?

Over several recent decades, China has become a major economic partner for most ASEAN countries. Analysts warn of the risk of economic dependency with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (‘BRI’) introduced in 2013, which increases this risk and thus a just settlement of conflict in the SCS is being questioned. The BRI was launched as China’s global development strategy with the goal of promoting infrastructure development, trade and economic growth, and financial and cultural cooperation throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe[47]. Indonesia has become the third-largest beneficiary of China’s trillion-dollar BRI due to its geographical strategic position that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans[48]. Although Indonesia has yet to fully utilise this maritime strategic position, China has significantly impacted its economy by becoming its biggest trading partner[49]. Challenges include China’s adherence to using its own labour force when investing in development projects overseas[50]. Between 2019 and early 2024 there were approximately 21,022 partnership projects between Indonesia and China amounting to $30.2B, indicating the strengthening of economic ties[51] and hence the economic dependency. While this burgeoning relationship brings significant economic benefits it also limits Indonesia’s ability to exercise strong actions or demands in the SCS dispute[52]. This phenomenon is also faced by other ASEAN claimant countries. The diplomatic relationship between Indonesia and China has seen substantial growth, and in February 2024 the two countries emphasised the rapid development of bilateral relations[53].

Lessons learned and policy recommendations for the future government

In light of the current escalated conflict in the SCS, this brief explored how different countries’ Attitudes, Behaviour, and Contradictions (i.e., Galtung’s ABC conflict model) held by conflict parties influenced the (de)escalation of the conflict. Focusing on Indonesia’s attitudes and behaviours, and its contradictory actions towards the conflict, this brief concludes the following. The seem-to-be ‘contradiction’ between (i) Indonesia’s collaborative and positive-sum attitudes towards China as reflected through its actions in establishing a strong diplomatic and economic relationship, and (ii) its coercive military actions when defending the North Natuna islands after being claimed aggressively by China, then Indonesia’s actions can be seen as its attempt to achieving the goal of securing its basic needs. This includes the sovereign rights to maintain Indonesia’s territorial integrity, and secure economic interests essential for its economic growth and national food security. The latter relates to Indonesia’s economic losses from the IUU fishing that reached $10 to $23B annually when China’s fishermen and vessels were heavily involved. China’s heavy economic investment through its BRI, and its continuing aggressive actions towards other conflict parties within the SCS, create a dependency dilemma. How does Indonesia prepare balanced actions towards conflict settlement whilst also securing its economic interests? 

President-elect Prabowo Subianto, who is scheduled to take office in October 2024 as Indonesia’s 8th President, should consider the following factors when (re)shaping the country’s strategies within the SCS conflict.

  • Three elements that can (de)escalate the conflict need to be seriously weighed: (i) contradictory goals amongst conflict parties, (ii) changes in parties’ behaviour towards others in the conflict, and (iii) the scarcity of marine resources.

With a military background including being a  Minister of Defence, President-elect Subianto has a deep understanding of Indonesia’s geopolitical challenges, including the complex dynamics in the SCS, and therefore his presidency marks a pivotal moment for Indonesia’s stance on regional stability, economic sovereignty, and maritime security.

  • Enhancing Indonesian military’s capabilities in safeguarding territorial waters will help deter foreign ships and protect Indonesia’s sovereignty and economic interests. This is crucial: whilst over 900,000 fishermen work full-time[54] many of them are not under government protection[55].
  • Continue to actively engage in mediating the SCS dispute and advance the COC negotiations with China until a mutually acceptable agreement is reached. This will help resolve the conflict peacefully and promote mutual prosperity within the region, especially among ASEAN members. Regional stability is paramount for Indonesia and other parties in achieving their economic growth.
  • Improving economic diversification to reduce dependency risks, particularly with China as Indonesia’s largest economic partner, through improving economic ties and promoting strategic infrastructure development in maritime and economic zones with other countries. This will enhance economic resilience while improving bilateral and multilateral cooperation with other countries.

By implementing these strategies the incoming Indonesian government can effectively address the South China Sea dispute while also promoting economic stability and regional cooperation.

[1] Tran, H. (2024, January 17). China’s Big Gamble in the South China Sea.

[2] Wong, T. (2024, June 1). Philippines warns China against “acts of war.”

[3] Wong, T. (2024, June 1). Philippines warns China against “acts of war.”

[4] UNCLOS. (1982). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In United Nations. United Nations.

[5] Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and Transform: an Introduction to Conflict Work. Paradigm Publishers.

[6] Leifer, M. (1995). Chinese economic reform and security policy: The South China Sea connection. Survival37(2), 44–59.

[7] Schofield, C. (2013). What’s at stake in the South China Sea? Geographical and geopolitical considerations. In Beyond Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea (pp. 11-46). Edward Elgar Publishing.

[8] Ortwerth, D. (2024). The Philippines, China & Escalation in the South China Sea . In Confluence Invest Management.

[9]  Ikeshima, T. (2013). China’s Dashed Line in the South China Sea: Legal Limits and Future Prospects. Waseda; Waseda Global Forum No. 10, 2013, 17-50.

[10]  Dutton, P. (2011). THREE DISPUTES AND THREE OBJECTIVES: China and the South China Sea. Naval War College Review64(4), 42–67.




[14] Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and Transform: an Introduction to Conflict Work. Paradigm Publishers.

[15] Farhan, A. R., Aditya, R. B., Mahabror, D., Ardianto, R., & Naibaho, K. N. (2018). PENGARUH PENINGKATAN TEKANAN TERHADAP UNJUK KERJA ENGINE SATU SILINDER. POROS16(1).


[17] United Nations. (2010). Permanent Mission of the republic of Indonesia to the United Nations. In

[18] Sulistyani, Y. A., Pertiwi, A. C., & Sari, M. I. (2021). Indonesia’s Responses amidst the Dynamic of the South China Sea Dispute under Jokowi’s Administration [Respons Indonesia di tengah Dinamika Sengketa Laut China Selatan di bawah Pemerintahan Jokowi. Jurnal Politica Dinamika Masalah Politik Dalam Negeri Dan Hubungan Internasional12(1), 85–103.

[19] FAO. (2023a). What is IUU fishing? | Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[20] Poling, G. B. (2019, January 9). Illuminating the South China Sea’s Dark Fishing Fleets. Stephenson Ocean Security Project;

[21] Agnew, D. J., Pearce, J., Pramod, G., Peatman, T., Watson, R., Beddington, J. R., & Pitcher, T. J. (2009). Estimating the Worldwide Extent of Illegal Fishing. PLoS ONE4(2), e4570.

[22] Zhang, H., & Bateman, S. (2017). Fishing Militia, the Securitization of Fishery and the South China Sea Dispute. Contemporary Southeast Asia39(2), 288–314.

[23]Mahabror, D., & Hidayat, J. J. (2018). Prosiding Seminar Nasional Kelautan dan Perikanan.

[24] Farhan, A. R., Aditya, R. B., Mahabror, D., Ardianto, R., & Naibaho, K. N. (2018). PENGARUH PENINGKATAN TEKANAN TERHADAP UNJUK KERJA ENGINE SATU SILINDER. POROS16(1).


[26] Kementrian Pertahanan Republik Indonesia. (2016, July 7). Menhan Anggap Biasa Penangkapan Kapal Tiogkok di Natuna.

[27] DW. (2016, May 31). Cina Protes Penangkapan Kapal Nelayannya di Natuna – DW – 31.05.2016.

[28] FAO. (2023b, May 4). Indonesia is progressing to combat IUU fishing, room for improvements on SSF empowerment and policy enforcement | FAO in Indonesia | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[29] BPK-RI. (2009, October). UU No. 45 Tahun 2009. Database Peraturan | JDIH BPK.

[30] Sekretariat Kabinet Republik Indonesia. (2017, July 14). Tegaskan Batas Wilayah NKRI, Pemerintah Terbitkan Peta Mutakhir. Sekretariat Kabinet Republik Indonesia.

[31] Maulana, Y. S., Ibrahim, B., & Bunari. (2023). PERUBAHAN NAMA ZONA EKONOMI EKSKLUSIF INDONESIA DI LAUT CINA SELATAN MENJADI LAUT NATUNA UTARA (1982-2017). Nusantara Hasana Journal3(2), 124–131.

[32] Frost, F. (2016). Engaging the neighbours. Australia and ASEAN since 1974. In ANU Press.

[33] Shafina, G. (2023, August 16). Mengulik Praktik IUU Fishing di Perairan Indonesia dan Solusinya. GoodStats.

[34] PERPRES. (2015, October). PERPRES No. 115 Tahun 2015. Database Peraturan | JDIH BPK.

[35] KKP. (2017, July). Permen KKP No. 37/PERMEN-KP/2017 Tahun 2017. Database Peraturan | JDIH BPK.


[37] KEMLU. (2018b). Indonesias Initiative Accelerates South China Sea Code Of Conduct Negotiations | Portal Kementerian Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia.

[38] KEMLU. (2023, September 1). Indonesias Initiative Accelerates South China Sea Code Of Conduct Negotiations | Portal Kementerian Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia.

[39] Politics-Today. (2024, January 10). Indonesia Takes Leadership in South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiations. Politics Today.

[40] Putro, A. T., Legowo, E., Suwarno, P., Widodo, P., & Sukendro, A. (2023). Indonesian Leadership Policies and Strategies In Facing The South China Sea Conflict. International Journal of Humanities Education and Social Sciences3(3).

[41] ASEAN. (2023, September 1). Keterlibatan Penting Indonesia dalam Sejumlah Isu di ASEAN. Asean2023.Id.

[42] ASEAN. (2023, September 1). Keterlibatan Penting Indonesia dalam Sejumlah Isu di ASEAN. Asean2023.Id.

[43] Galtung, J. (2004). Transcend and Transform: an Introduction to Conflict Work. Paradigm Publishers.


[45] Natalegawa, M. M. (2018). Aspirations with limitations : Indonesia’s foreign affairs under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (pp. 14–32). Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute.

[46] KEMLU. (2018a). Embassy of The Republic of Indonesia in Washington D.C. The United States of America. Kementerian Luar Negeri Repulik Indonesia.

[47] Belt-and-Road-Portal. (2023). The Belt and Road Portal – BELT AND ROAD PORTAL.

[48] Rakhmat, M. Z. (2023). The Political Economy of China-Indonesia Relations in 2022. In Google Books. INDEF.


[50] Yang, Y. (2022). Bring Your Own Workers: Chinese OFDI, Chinese overseas workers, and collective labor rights in Africa. World Development152, 105808.

[51] Usman, R. (2024, May 14). Nilai Investasi China di Indonesia Capai US$ 30,2 Miliar Sejak 5 Tahun Terakhir (Handoyo, Ed.).

[52] Rakhmat, M. Z. (2023). The Political Economy of China-Indonesia Relations in 2022. In Google Books. INDEF.

[53] KEMLU. (2024, February 6). Indonesia And China Discuss Strengthening Comprehensive Strategic Partnership | Portal Kementerian Luar Negeri Republik Indonesia.

[54] Warta-Geopasial. (2020). Ikan Kembung Lebih kaya Gizi Eat Better, Feel Better, Live Better Media Informasi Badan Informasi Geospasial Muat tulisanmu di.

[55] Santika, E. F. (2024, January 14). Baru 308 Ribu Nelayan yang Terlindungi di Indonesia pada 2022 | Databoks.

Aisya Muyassara Wisnugroho
Aisya Muyassara Wisnugroho
I am a bachelor student at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia majoring in International Relations. I am Intellectually curious and readily engage socially, I embrace challenges and face risks without fear. My motivation to study International Relations is not only to broaden my knowledge and become globally aware geo-politically and culturally, but also to change my country, Indonesia, positively.