Why there is no ‘new maritime dispute’ between Indonesia and China

In the last two weeks, there have been reports circulating that Indonesia is now officially standing up against China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Two days ago, Ann Marie Murphy wrote for the Pacific Forum PacNet newsletter that “Indonesia formally announces its dispute with China in the South China Sea”.  She claims that, “Indonesian officials on March 12, 2014 announced that China’s nine-dash line map outlining its claim in the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesia’s Riau province, which includes the Natuna Island chain,” in a sign of a “significant policy shift.”

As she did not provide the source of this announcement, I can only speculate or assume that the source came from a piece authored by Zachary Keck The Diplomat ran a few weeks ago claiming that China has started a new “maritime dispute” with Indonesia.

Keck used a news report that cited Indonesian navy commodore Fahru Zaini, an assistant to the first deputy of the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs (Menkopolhukam):

China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This arbitrary claim is related to the dispute over Spratly and Paracel Islands between China and the Philippines. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters…[because] China has drawn the sea map of Natuna Islands in the South China Sea in its territorial map with nine dash lines.

Others have also picked up on his statement (see The Jakarta Globe, for example).

This alleged ‘dispute’ then is somehow seen as potentially problematic because, as Keck also suggested, Indonesia is beefing up its military presence and infrastructure in the area.

The overall impression therefore is that Indonesia’s defense modernization and deployment plans are somehow driven by China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, and that now Jakarta has officially staked out its policy to challenge Beijing.

This impression is false for several reasons.

First, there is no maritime ‘dispute’ between Indonesia and China. Following the statement by Zaini,  Indonesian foreign ministry spokesman Michael Tene said that “Indonesia has no maritime border with China” and that Indonesia is not a claimant state to the South China Sea dispute. Indeed, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa clarified further on March 19,

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

This policy is of course not new. Jakarta has officially lodged a complaint to the UN a few years ago regarding the nine-dash line. In fact, Indonesia has consistently argued for the importance of the Natunas and how we should handle the South China Sea since the mid-1990s, including the management of the Workshop on Managing Potential Conflict in the South China Sea.

I have argued for Jakarta’s interest in the Natunas in 2011 for The Diplomat too. Daniel Novotny’s book has a long list of quotations from various levels of Indonesia’s defense and foreign policymakers since the 1990s that basically echoed Zaini’s sentiments: Indonesia is concerned that the Natunas could be endangered by China’s nine-dash line, but we will never officially admit a dispute with China because that would give credence to  Beijing’s claims.

As the great late Ali Alatas once said about the matter, “the repetition of an untruth will eventually make it appear as truth”. In short, there is no significant policy shift on the matter.

I would add a caveat however that the status quo between China and Indonesia over the Natunas will remain until the day Beijing challenges Indonesia’s rights to explore the natural resources within our EEZs.

Second, on the military buildup that analysts are concerned about. The Natuna area has been a central feature in Indonesia’s external defense thinking since the 1990s. The largest ever tri-service military exercise under Suharto’s tenure in 1996 was based on a scenario in the Natuna islands. This has been the pattern for subsequent exercises since; though there is an additional “Ambalat component” to it recently.

The statements that the TNI leadership has been making lately about “flashpoint defense” and how the Natunas is a part of it, and how our latest military assets would be deployed in the area, should be taken with a grain of salt.

For one thing, the flashpoint defense (and the role of the Natunas in it) and the military modernization plans have been on the books since early to mid-2000s. In fact, I described the TNI’s planned flashpoint-based defense in a 2011 paper that included the Natunas (under Riau and Riau islands) based on a 2010 MoD document (formulated since mid-2000s). Here’s a snapshot of the flashpoint scenario:


For another, the procurement of advanced platforms like the Sukhois and Leopard MBTs and others is part of the Minimum Essential Force (MEF) concept that has been around since mid-2000s. The MEF was designed less for a China threat and more for an organizational and technological revamp (the TNI lost numerous men due to accidents and platform decay in the past decade).

The current political climate however does provide the TNI leadership with the opportunity to further push for their pre-existing plans and deflect criticisms from civil society activists arguing against expensive weaponry. So again, no. Indonesia is not building up its military power against a resurgent China.

Finally, we can speculate whether Zaini was speaking for the Indonesian government. The clarification from the Foreign Ministry however suggest that he wasn’t. Does this mean that Zaini was speaking for the TNI? One of my contacts close with the defense establishment in Jakarta suggest this isn’t the case too. The TNI HQ has not been making any significant change or drastic plans regarding the Natunas and South China Sea for now.

We should also consider the fact that the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs is not a decision making body like the Ministry of Defense. They coordinate policies, not formally make them.

So why Zaini made the arguments is less clear. But what is clearer I think is: (1) he was not authoritatively tasked with announcing a major policy shift (nor is there a policy shift in the first place), and (2) he was merely echoing a long-held pre-existing sentiments within Indonesia’s policymakers since the 1990s.

Overall therefore, these three points alone should tell us that The Diplomat piece and others who followed it may have taken things out of their proper context.








11 thoughts on “Why there is no ‘new maritime dispute’ between Indonesia and China

  1. Pingback: Indo-Pacific Review Why There Is No ‘New Maritime Dispute’ Between Indonesia and China | Indo-Pacific Review

  2. Pingback: Why There Is No ‘New Maritime Dispute’ Between Indonesia and China | Center for International Maritime Security

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  4. Pingback: Is Indonesia shifting its South China Sea policy? | Institute for Maritime and Ocean Affairs

  5. Pingback: Is Indonesia shifting its South China Sea policy? – The Interpreter | MaritimeSecurity.Asia

  6. Pingback: Indonesia joins push against China; beefs up air force in South China Sea | China Daily Mail

  7. Just because Natalegawa chooses not to acknowledge the issue and hope it just goes away doesn’t mean that China doesn’t claim the Natunas.

    • Show me one clear statement in which China claims Natunas or that Beijing challenges our rights to explore gas and natural resources there.

  8. By MoD documents, do you mean it’s Ministry of Defense’s documents?
    Is it confidential? If it’s not, do you mind if I have a copy? Thanks.

  9. Pingback: The South China Sea Crisis: Impossible to Solve? | Peace and Freedom

  10. Pingback: ASEAN’s Failing Grade in the South China Sea | The Asan Forum

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