Originally Published 2017-02-09 06:16:25 Published on Feb 09, 2017
Defusing the South China Sea crisis – Through an Indonesian lens

The current problem in the South China Sea has presented Indonesia with a challenge at a moment when it is least expected. The crisis has occurred at a time when the Sino-Indonesian relationship is on the cusp of going into a full-swing, and when the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the so-called ‘cornerstone’ of Indonesia’s foreign policy, has been undergoing a deeper and wider integration towards becoming a full-fledged community of nations. More critically, however, the likelihood of a South China Sea conflict poses a geopolitical challenge of unprecedented magnitude—that of a major power conflict—so close to home. Fresh initiatives are necessary if Indonesia and ASEAN are to defuse the crisis.

From a mere dispute to a crisis

The South China Sea issue is a long-running one. One may recall the armed clashes between some claimants during the Cold War in their quest to occupy and settle some of the features. At a glance, the current trend seems far more stable, if not tranquil, than it was three to four decades ago. Indeed, the South China Sea at the time did not preoccupy the attention of most Southeast Asian nations, even less, the non-claimant major powers. A shared unspoken sense prevailed that the South China Sea was only a local conflict among a few claimants, with little consequences, if any, to affect the relationship between the great powers of the time, namely China, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Back then, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was also still being negotiated, even though the claimant states had already drawn and staked their claims. More importantly, none of the claimants then possessed the amount of sea-power sufficient enough to enforce effective control against the use of the sea by the other claimants. Consequently, there was no way for any claimant to deny major maritime powers of the world the use of South China Sea for international military and commercial navigation.

That the South China Sea has become internationalised at present is less a result of the calculated move by the claimants, and more due to the increased confidence of the claimants to make their presence felt at and from the sea. With the resolution of major land disputes and conflicts in mainland Southeast Asia, as well as increased welfare and prosperity of the claimants, their residual discords have shifted increasingly seaward. Yet, unlike in the past, some claimants now possess more means to deliver their policies more consequential at and from the sea. Not only do they devote more funding on sophisticated maritime warfare capabilities, they literally have changed, or are changing, the physical features in the South China Sea as a way to fortify their present claims.

<1> In addition, means are now available for some claimants to engage in competition over sovereignty and sovereign rights without necessarily triggering armed clashes. The advent of ‘white-hull’ coastguards and other maritime law enforcement agencies has further complicated the strategic environment.

This trend consequently brought the South China Sea issue into a whole new level. Whereas in the past, the South China Sea was just a ‘dispute’, or ‘disputes’ involving multiple claimants, it is now a full-fledged crisis. The use of ‘crisis’ here is not to be taken lightly. It adopts a definition by John Richardson in his Crisis Diplomacy:

An international crisis is an acute conflict between two or more states, associated with a specific issue and involving a perception by decision-makers of a serious risk of war. <2>

Against the backdrop of this definition, the South China issue clearly fulfills the description of a crisis. It has become internationalised, involving multiple claimant and non-claimant states, with a serious risk of war involved. One geopolitical analyst even describes the South China Sea as the “future of conflict” and “Asia’s cauldron”.<3>This notion seems more compelling after China, with the largest claim in the South China Sea colloquially known as the ‘9-dash’ or ‘U-shaped’ line, refused to join the Arbitral Tribunal case initiated in 2013 by the Philippines in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

Gone are the days when the risk of short and lightly armed clashes among the claimants could be underrated. The risk of armed escalation has magnified considerably, commensurate with enhanced capabilities of the claimants to wage war at and from the sea, with the potential involvement of non-claimant major powers. That the verbal exchanges between some claimants of late, such as in Malaysia and the Philippines, have somewhat been “friendlier” belie the mistrusts and suspicions still lingering beneath the surface.<4> Moreover, the South China Sea issue has become truly internationalised with the United States, although a neutral party in the dispute, declaring that it is a “national interest” worthy of defending by force, if necessary.<5>  Save for Japan, other non-claimant major powers have responded in similar fashion, albeit less assertively.<6>

What then are the consequences of the South China Sea issue as a crisis for ASEAN? How does it impact Indonesia’s interests? First, it is apparent that the South China Sea crisis has become an embodiment of great power rivalries not just between China and the United States, but also Japan, Russia, and India. The logic of rivalries has compelled the great powers to use all available avenues to pressure their rivals. It is, for instance, not unreasonable to expect Russia to lend more support to China in the South China Sea for greater leverage over the United States in Eastern Europe. While great power rivalries are not (yet) hostile, they have begun to characterise and complicate the issue, which makes its resolution doubly difficult. No longer can a modus vivendi be found unless the claimants also sufficiently accommodated the interests of the non-claimant great powers.<7>

Second, as a consequence of the first, ASEAN would find it increasingly difficult to adopt a common position on every incident related to the South China Sea, especially when it involves China. The reason is less about China’s influence among Southeast Asian countries, and more about the absence of a fallback position, lest their retaliatory posturing towards Beijing backfires. The South China Sea is not just a crisisin the sense that conflict between the claimants could at anytime break out, but also a crisis in the sense that no claimant state feels confident enough that help is forthcoming when they must punch above their weight. No ASEAN leader puts this crisis of confidence more starkly than President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who believed that his country only had two options: “We talk or we fight. Philippines to fight China, it will be slaughter so we talk. We cannot match.”<8> At the same time, Duterte is unconvinced that the US would honor its alliance treaty with the Philippines to the extent of defending Manila’s claim.

Third, the South China Sea has increasingly assumed a multi-dimensional character. While in the past it concentrated on the politico-security dimension, the South China Sea of today has crept into economic and demographic dimensions as well. For example, Southeast Asian economic ties with China are manifestly contingent upon their attitudes and policies towards Beijing’s position on the South China Sea. The sharp difference in Chinese attitude towards the Philippines’ Duterte and that of his predecessor is a case in point. Simply put, Beijing is not an “all-weather friend”; the more one criticises China over the South China Sea, the dimmer the prospects for closer ties with Beijing.

Less apparent, but equally significant, is the issue of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia.<9> The link between the perceptions of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and Beijing’s position on the South China Sea is tenuous at best. Yet perceptions matter. Beijing’s insistence on Southeast Asians to accept its position in the South China Sea could incite a backlash against ethnic Chinese populations in the region, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, where anti-Chinese sentiments run deep beneath the surface. One can argue that Indonesia’s restrained and cautious attitude towards the South China Sea issue might partly stem from Jakarta’s concern over any potential backlash against the local ethnic Chinese community—who have little, if anything, to do with the South China Sea—that a confrontational diplomatic posture against Beijing would consequently bring about.

Finally, the South China Sea crisis could raise the risk of armed clashes between the claimants, possibly with the involvement of non-claimants. Between the mid-1960s and early 1980s, Indonesia was the sole submarine operator in Southeast Asia.<10> By 2016, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam are all operating submarines, with Thailand, Myanmar, and the Philippines intending to follow suit. The South China Sea might not motivate these acquisitions, but they certainly affect the regional balance of naval power between the claimants. The strategic picture is more complicated with the presence of non-claimant great powers asserting their “freedom of navigation” through naval and air patrols, using portions of occupied features. Thus far, there seems to be a tacit understanding, albeit not acceptance, by the claimants of what is permissible under such patrols. Yet, tacit understandings could easily fail to prevent a misunderstanding and miscalculation.

Disunity and Desperation

As the South China Sea evolves from a mere dispute into a full-fledged crisis, Indonesia finds itself disunited and desperate to present a workable solution with China, as well as between ASEAN and China. The year 2016 for Indonesia began with a terrorist attack at the heart of the capital city, Jakarta, on January 14th by the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh.<11> Terrorism has defined Indonesia’s security landscape since the Bali Bombings in 2002, the so-called ‘Indonesia’s 9/11’. What many now find unprecedented is the overt display of sympathy to IS by some radical fringes on Jakarta streets before and after the attack. The religious extremism and terrorism that has locked Indonesian attention for more than a decade, has resulted in the neglect of the geopolitical challenge in the South China Sea.

That challenge came demonstrably in March, when an Indonesian fishery enforcement vessel found itself harassed by two Chinese coastguard vessels in the vicinity of the Natuna Islands located at the southern fringes of the South China Sea.<12> That a similar incident occurred only two months later, while being mindful of pre-2016 incidents, suggests a wider pattern is at play. These incidents came at a time when Indonesia was staging the most vigorous campaign against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in its history.<13> Yet unlike the pre-2016 incidents, when silent diplomacy was the norm, the March-June incidents prompted Indonesia to openly stage official and public protests, much to the chagrin of Beijing.

While some assume that the protests in Jakarta were fanned by exhortations from the Fishery Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, it does not obscure the fact that sentiments against China’s growing assertiveness at sea are shared by many policymakers and pundits in Indonesia. It was only in 1990 that Jakarta officially resumed full diplomatic relations with Beijing after a hiatus since 1967. The issue of overseas Chinese in Indonesia, however, still remains controversial, as demonstrated in protests by radical Islamic groups on the election of the first Chinese-Indonesian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Purnama.<14> In defence and security circles too, several senior policymakers have spoken openly of their concern and dismay against Beijing’s attitudes and policies towards Indonesia, especially in the Natunas. Regardless of the accuracy of their claims, it is fair to conclude that strategic anxiety towards China persists, even after the elevation of Sino-Indonesian relations to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in August 2013.

That the Sino-Indonesia relationship has changed for the better is both an opportunity and a cause for celebration. China has provided Indonesia with a large export market for its trade commodities, especially in raw materials. The potential of Chinese investment is also an opportunity that remains to be untapped. Aspiring to uplift its maritime economy and infrastructure, Indonesia cannot afford to be selective in choosing the source of foreign investment, especially when the investor is also the world’s second largest economy.

On the other hand, foreign investment is still a contentious issue in Indonesia. Protectionism, economic nationalism, bureaucratic red tape, and legal uncertainties continue to spook foreign investors, not least from China. Even so, Indonesian government data shows that in 2015, China was only Indonesia’s ninth largest investor well below Japan, the United States, and the European Union.<15>Yet, post-colonial Indonesia has no precedent of China as the dominant economic partner. Doing business with Beijing involves a whole new set of standards, characteristics, and challenges -- from the controversial use of Chinese manual labourers to the question of trade deficits.

If the national scene vis-à-vis interaction with China as ‘great power’ appears uncertain, the regional scenario is even more unpredictable. Given that all international politics in ASEAN states is usually domestic, regional policymakers are coming to terms with the fact that all things remaining same, friendship with Beijing is indispensable, even if only for reasons of economics. After the Duterte government’s inauguration in Philippines, the country has moved from being ASEAN’s staunchest critic of China to one of its most ardent appeasers. Nothing demonstrated this more clearly than the change in Manila’s attitude towards the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal. Announced in July 2016, the decision is binding to all signatories of UNCLOS, including China. While Manila called on China to abide by the decision, the tone softened considerably following the presidential election in June 2016.

Meanwhile, ASEAN and its related meetings held in 2016 have had modest success. Despite a deliberate attempt by regional leaders to avoid mentioning the Tribunal’s decision to China, ASEAN has been “seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the South China Sea, including Chinese “land reclamation in the Spratly islands.”<16>Thankfully, Beijing has been persuaded to desist from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.”<17>The adoption of a naval Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) as a sort of crisis management mechanism, also counts as a positive move. On the other hand, the controversial uses of white-hull vessels and “maritime militias”, such as fishing fleets, to enforce maritime claims remain unaddressed. Worryingly, despite considerable efforts, ASEAN and China have failed to effectively implement the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties and formulate a Code of Conduct that is legally binding and operationally enforceable.

Breaking the impasse

Seemingly lacking are fresh initiatives to break the impasse. The initiatives ASEAN presented thus far revolve mainly around confidence-building measures. Despite being well-intended, these have not added significant value to the existing initiatives. One may recall the Indonesia-facilitated informal technical workshops on the South China Sea in the 1990s. The contribution of such CBMs towards actual de-escalation is hard to measure. Inter-claimant tensions seemed to generally follow a rising pattern, albeit with fluctuating dynamics, after China had re-issued the U-shaped line map before the UN in 2009.

ASEAN might want to take a cue from the recent PCA award. The Arbitral Tribunal’s decision cleared some uncertainties from a legal standpoint – none more than the verdict concerning Scarborough Shoal. While refraining from commenting on the issue of ownership, the Tribunal clarified that neither China nor the Philippines held exclusive control of the Shoal. It is now possible for the two countries to craft a provisional joint fishery arrangement. They could follow the Japan-Taiwan fishery agreement of April 2013, where neither country would subject the fishermen from either side to law enforcement measures beyond the territorial sea around the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands.

Yet, such a model requires full consultations with the local fishermen from the two countries, including on the nature and method of catch, so as to prevent accusations of unfair exploitation by either side. It is also possible to designate a no-fishing zone within the Scarborough Shoal to replenish fishing stocks that a joint team with members from China and the Philippines could supervise and enforce. Success of this model could become an inspiration elsewhere, with some modifications to meet local conditions.

At the same time, it is in the interest of the Southeast Asian littoral states, especially claimant countries, to conclude their maritime boundary delimitation. Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia have delimited their continental shelf boundaries, but they still need to delimit their exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Considering the purported overlap between Indonesia’s claimed EEZ and China’s U-shaped line in the South China Sea, Beijing will likely protest. The delimitation of EEZs among South China Sea littoral countries would, however, add credibility to an UNCLOS-based global maritime order, even lending support to the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision. The suggestion to form a South China Sea Commission with “15 regional and international members”, including from all the claimants could prove useful, provided it complements relevant UNCLOS provisions on maritime boundary delimitation. <18>

Even though the role of non-claimant major powers has complicated the regional picture, it is admittedly in the interest of ASEAN for them to stay, especially if they can offer constructive contributions to break the SCS impasse. They could lend diplomatic support for ASEAN to use UNCLOS as the only credible maritime regime to resolve current maritime disputes. Very much laudable is the recent India-Indonesia joint statement on maritime cooperation “to maintaining a maritime legal order based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in .”  India set a good example by accepting third-party arbitration in settling its maritime dispute with Bangladesh in 2014, even when the decision finally came in favour of the latter. <19>

Other initiatives to promote cooperation are also possible. First, ASEAN could try and broaden the scope of CUES with China to include marine law enforcement agencies, such as coastguards. The formulation of such CUES will need to follow from existing principles of navigational safety, such as the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). The suggestion to apply specific CUES for submarine operations, however, appears to be a case of too much and too soon. The fact that Southeast Asian countries just recently acquired such platforms and have yet to develop strategic trust means that cooperation in submarine operations, at least in the near future, is not a realistic possibility.

Second, fishery stock agreements among littoral countries should take effect. The threats of overfishing and marine environmental degradation, even within undisputed territorial waters, are a shared challenge, because of the potential depletion of fish stocks available for all littoral countries. Littoral countries could set up a South China Sea fishery commission that would formulate a model to implement sustainable ways of fishing.

Capacity-building efforts among fishermen, or at least fishery officials, from all littoral countries could also ensure the adoption of non-violent ways to resolve fishing disputes and increase mutual familiarisation to avoid future physical clashes. Third, there should be calls for a collective action to ensure non-military use of reclaimed features. Greater transparency, in terms of mutual visits and inspection of features, by all claimants or through a trusted third-party observer should be encouraged. Finally, all littoral countries could form a joint search and rescue (SAR) arrangement in the South China Sea, which allows mutual assistance in their respective SAR regions. ASEAN states could also hold regular SAR exercises under this arrangement for counter-piracy and disaster response purposes.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto is an Indonesian Presidential PhD Scholar with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

This article was originally published in GP-ORF’s Line in the Waters.

<1>Risking Beijing's ire, Vietnam begins dredging on South China Sea reef, Reuters, Dec 9, 2016 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-vietnam-idUSKBN13X0WD

<2>James Richardson, Crisis Diplomacy: The Great Powers since the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 12.

<3>Robert Kaplan, “The South China Sea is The Future of Conflict,” Foreign Policy, August 15, 2011, http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/08/15/the-south-china-sea-is-the-future-of-conflict/; Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014).

<4>PH, China coast guards get friendly, CBN News, December 16, 2016 http://news.abs-cbn.com/news/12/16/16/ph-china-coast-guards-get-friendly

<5> See, U.S. Department of State, Remarks at Press Availability, July 23, 2010, http://www.state.gov/secretary/20092013clinton/rm/2010/07/145095.htm; Colin Packham, US ready to confront Beijing on South China Sea: admiral, Reuters,December 15, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-usa-idUSKBN1430CJ

<6>Abhijit Singh, India’s Strategic Stakes in the South China Sea, Asia Policy21 (2016), 14-20

<7>  Alice Ba, ASEAN’s Stakes: The South China Sea’s Challenge to Autonomy and Agency, Asia Policy 21 (2016), 52.

<8>Natashya Gutierrez, Duterte attacks US, praises China in Indonesia, Rappler, September 9, 2016, http://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/indonesia/english/145706-china-united-states-duterte-massacre

<9>See Abhanti Bhattacharya, The Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia: Chinese Nationalism Reinforced, Diaspora Studies Journal, Volume 2, 2009, at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09739572.2009.10597332

<10>  See Underwater ambitions: submarines and anti-submarine capabilities in Southeast Asia, Jane’s Navy International, 2015 at http://www.janes360.com/images/assets/006/50006/submarines_and_anti-submarine_capabilities_in_Southeast_Asia.pdf

<11>ISIS backers claim responsibility for Paris-style terror attack in Jakarta, Fox News, January 14, 2016 http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/01/14/massive-explosion-gunfire-heard-in-indonesian-capital-jakarta.html

<12>Indonesia's Government accuses Chinese coastguard of infringing on its waters, ABC News, March 22, 2016 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-21/indonesia-says-chinese-coast-guard-infringed-on-its-waters/7264368

<13>Prashanth Parameswaran, Indonesia Could Sink 57 More Vessels in War on Illegal Fishing, January 8, 2016  http://thediplomat.com/2016/01/indonesia-could-sink-57-more-vessels-in-war-on-illegal-fishing/

<14>How Jakarta’s first Chinese Indonesian governor became an easy target for radical Islamic groups, The Conversation, November 7, 2016 http://theconversation.com/how-jakartas-first-chinese-indonesian-governor-became-an-easy-target-for-radical-islamic-groups-68178

<15>See, BKPM, Realisasi Penanaman Modal PMDN-PMA Triwulan IV dan Januari-Desember 2014 (Jakarta: Badan Koordinasi Penanaman Modal, 2016), 26. http://www9.bkpm.go.id/images/uploads/investasi_indonesia/file/Bahan_Paparan_-_IND_-_TW_IV_2015_Final.pdf

<16>Joint Communiqué of the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Vientiane, 24 July 2016,” http://asean.org/storage/2016/07/Joint-Communique-of-the-49th-AMM-ADOPTED.pdf

<17>Joint Statement of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and China on the Full and Effective Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, July 25, 2016, http://asean.org/storage/2016/07/Joint-Statement-on-the-full-and-effective-implementation-of-the-DOC-FINAL.pdf

<18>Sagara Kusuma, Experts find new solutions to South China Sea dispute, The Jakarta Post, September 6, 2016, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2016/09/06/experts-find-new-solutions-south-china-sea-dispute.html

<19> Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Statement by India and Indonesia on Maritime Cooperation, December 12, 2016, http://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/27806/Statement+by+India+and+Indonesia+on+Maritime+Cooperation

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