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. Continue reading


Variations on a Theme: Dimensions of Ambivalence in Indonesia-China Relations

When Indonesia signed a Strategic Partnership with China in 2005, many believed that Indonesia was finally moving away from its historically strong ties with the United States and straight into Beijing’s arms. The subsequent growth in military-to-military ties that followed alongside the incredible expansion in economic ties seemed to further vindicate this argument. Following the implementation of the China–ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in 2010, China even became Indonesia’s largest trading partner. This development is remarkable considering that Indonesia did not resume formal diplomatic ties with China until 1990, after a 23-year suspension from 1967. Is Indonesia finally joining the Chinese bandwagon?

Upon taking a closer look at the evolution in the bilateral relations, however, the answer to this question is not so straightforward. Indeed, the picture of Indonesia’s policy towards China is not a simple question of hedging, balancing, bandwagoning, or some variation of the three — though many analyses of Southeast Asian responses to China’s rise focus on these specific strategies. This paper argues instead that, when located within the broader evolution of Indonesia-China relations, Jakarta’s policy towards China is that of persistent ambivalence and ambiguity. Scholars have made this argument before. But they seldom break down the components or dimensions of that ambivalence and explore the rationale behind it.

This paper therefore aims to explain the ambivalence in Indonesia–China relations by assessing its four main dimensions: domestic politics, economics, strategic and security, and regional and foreign policy. These dimensions of ambivalence largely originate from deep-rooted sentiments and from the perceptions of the Indonesian public and elite, which are in turn shaped by a long history of mutual interaction, the place of ethnic Chinese-Indonesians in Indonesian society, as well as by China’s geographic proximity. In particular, the elite believes that China is gigantic, arrogant, aggressive and expansionist, and a geopolitical rival—and this is why most them (78 percent) are still concerned about the future implications of its ascendancy. Public perceptions of China on the other hand are shaped by their views of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese as the “other”—a separate race, with a different religion and different economic privileges that is unwilling to change and is only concerned with its own well being.

As such, Indonesia’s perception of China is often the projection of its image of domestic ethnic Chinese, a situation compounded by a lack of knowledge about China among Indonesians. Therefore, while these images may not necessarily be true, they still influence how Jakarta engages Beijing. Indeed, one scholar has argued that the question of perceptions, both within the elite and among the wider public, serves as the most important context within which Indonesia’s China policy is formulated and carried out. The following discussion therefore will be placed within the context of overall Indonesian perceptions regarding China.

A complete version of the paper is published by Harvard Asia Quarterly (Spring 2011) (download here).