Originally Published 2014-10-08 00:00:00 Published on Oct 08, 2014
As the pressure on the new government in Jakarta increases to overtly declare its status against the Chinese in the South China Sea, it also risks falling into the 'extended coercive diplomacy' strategy of the Chinese which focuses on the coercion of an adversary aligned with the US.
South China Sea dispute could lead to China-Indonesia conflict

At the heart of increasing tension and strategic turbulence in the South China Sea (SCS) region is the sovereignty disputes over "rocks and islands." In such an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, Indonesia, a regional power, revels in its role as a "mediator," "go-between," and a stabilizing force. Having chosen to play the role of an "honest broker" in the South China Sea disputes, as a leading member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it has officially denied having any territorial dispute with China.

To prove its credentials it has been closely monitoring the regional situation by supporting the formation of a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) with a series of successful sponsored workshops on the issue. However, this posturing may alter significantly if it joins the list of claimants in the SCS, placing it at direct odds with the Chinese and its infamous claim of the "nine-dash line" covering a sovereign area of nearly 80% of the entire SCS. This line was originally drafted in 1914 and harnessed by the Chinese Nationalist government in 1947; the Republic of China (Taiwan) still uses it, but as a perimeter to its own claims.

While Indonesia is still debating the future plan of action, there is no doubt that aggressiveness displayed by the Chinese in reiterating its varied claims in the region are taking its toll on the Indonesian resolve. In May and June 2010, an Indonesian ship was threatened at gunpoint by Chinese vessels off the Natuna islands, for having arrested Chinese trawlers. This led to a submission of a diplomatic Note verbale to UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, contesting the validity and legality of China's "nine-dash line."

While some feel that Jakarta's official denials may actually bolster Chinese sovereign claims in the dispute, it has also led to a quixotic situation in which Indonesia officially denies having any territorial dispute with China even though Beijing has given broad hints at a possible dispute over Natunas currently under the control of Jakarta.

The Anambas and the Natuna Islands group consist of about 70 small islands spread over an area of about 120 miles east-west by 70 miles north-south. Most islands are hilly with major human populations established in two small towns named Tarempa in Jemeja Island, Anambas and Ranai in Natuna Besar Island, Natuna.

Geographically located about 400 miles northeast of Sumatra, the Natunas have been a subject of dispute since 1993, when Beijing published a map showing Chinese "historic claims" on a gas field northeast of the islands. China does not lay claim to the Natuna Islands themselves, but the Chinese maps of the region include the waters and the seabed just north of the Natunas that are part of Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The rationale is that it falls partly within the boundaries of China's so-called nine-dash line in the SCS.

Interestingly, the seabed around the Natuna Islands is gas-rich and these waters cover part of the world's largest offshore gas fields with an estimated 1.27 trillion cubic metres of recoverable gas, representing 40% of Indonesia's gas reserves. Apart from energy, the seas off the Natunas are rich in fish, feeding the well-being of the local economy. Hence, the stakes of the claim are quite high.

To reiterate its posture and reassure Indonesia that it does not lay claim to Natunas, nor all the waters of the SCS, in 1995, China renounced all its claims on the Natunas islands themselves, but left out the gas field which was the basic point of contention. Subsequent attempts have yielded little as Beijing has simply refused to clarify further or even respond despite Jakarta's repeated requests and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa clarification further on March 19, 2014: "We have to be absolutely clear about this? There are three seemingly related but separate issues. Firstly, there is no territorial dispute between Indonesia and China, especially about the Natunas. In fact, we are cooperating with China in possibly bringing about foreign direct investment plans in the Natunas. Second, we are not a claimant state in the South China Sea. Third, on the nine-dash line, it is true that we do not accept that. This is why we have asked for a formal explanation from China regarding their claims' legal basis and background." For clarity on the issue there has been little response from the Chinese.

It is well-known that China is energy dependent and needs vast resources to fuel its developmental ascendancies. Forecasts in the 2013 IEA World Energy Outlook reveal that the Chinese demand will account for 31% of global net energy demand growth between 2011 and 2035. Its energy demand in 2035 will be double that of the United States (US) and triple that of the European Union. Such a growing appetite for energy resources will be increasingly backed by its growing naval power which would mean that it would have considerable implications for the strategic envelope in the SCS and its future energy security calculus.

In the background of the current debate on the EEZ around Natunas lie the troubled Beijing-Jakarta relations over the years. Both countries suspended diplomatic relations for twenty-three years after Suharto's ascent to power. Their resumption in 1990 did not prevent another crisis in the relationship, in 1994, over the treatment of Chinese Indonesians in North Sumatra. In 1998, during the height of the Asian Financial Crisis and Jakarta riots, Chinese Indonesians were again targeted, resulting in thousands fleeing abroad.

If Indonesia were to openly declare its claimant status and become party to SCS disputes, this would have tremendous repercussions on the region's geopolitics. First, the situation would be a strategic disadvantage to the Chinese as it would have turned a useful intermediary and a country with considerable influence over the other ASEAN member contestants of the SCS dispute into a major adversary.

Second, given that the Chinese are slowly enhancing their aggressive posturing in the SCS with a gradual enhancement of maritime capabilities, the risk of potential miscalculation and conflict escalation may well increase. Third, this could prompt ASEAN countries to seek an enhanced US presence in the region, to check China's rising hegemonistic ambitions.

Fourth, an increased cohesion among ASEAN claimant states against China could increase the pressure on Beijing to seek legal recourse or international arbitration to sort this vexed problem. Fifth, Jakarta and Beijing have been collaborating extensively on matters of defence such as, joint naval missile development and production. Beijing has offered to build a coastal surveillance system worth $158 million to supplement the existing US build system worth $57 million. Proposals are also there to Indonesia-China Centre for Ocean and Climate (ICCOC) for weather research with one station being proposed in Natuna. All these projects may well get into a limbo if Indonesia proclaims itself as a claimant.

Finally, Indonesia's entitlement to its EEZ is consistent with UNCLOS and any claim to the contrary would invariably weaken the Chinese claim of its "nine-dash line" and the imprecise "historical rights" from which it has ostensibly originated.

Indonesia's diplomacy has been quite successful so far in carving for itself a niche status of go-between and a role model for parties to the disputes in the SCS. However, as the pressure on the new government in Jakarta increases to overtly declare its status against the Chinese in the SCS - it also risks falling into the 'extended coercive diplomacy' strategy of the Chinese which focuses on the coercion of an adversary aligned with a great power, i.e. US allies such as the Philippines and Japan. Yet, after two major US strategic blunders over Syria and the Crimea, Washington can't afford to up the ante in the SCS and not follow through this, leaving the allies to the mercy of the Chinese.

Hence, it's a Hobson's choice for the Indonesians -- while its military assets are being significantly bolstered at the Ranai airbase on the Natuna Islands with additional ships, Sukhoi fighters and even American Apache helicopters, its diplomatic overdrive of sending TNI chief General Moeldoko travelled to China to meet with his counterpart has yielded mixed results and few details about his meetings were announced openly. It seems that it is inevitable that Indonesia will have to come upfront and declare that they have serious issues with the China's position in the SCS.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

Courtesy: ORF South China Sea Monitor

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