The start of 2020 witnessed a significant deterioration of relations between Indonesia and China, with potential implications for the wider Indo-Pacific strategic geometry.
In late December 2019, Chinese Coast Guard ships and around 63 Chinese fishing vessels appeared in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Natuna archipelago. On the 30th of December, with Indonesian Navy ships dispatched to Natuna waters, Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry announced a “strong protest” to China, and that Indonesia “would never recognise China’s nine-dash line claim” in the South China Sea.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry continued on the 1st January 2020 with more firm rhetoric. It rejected China’s assertion that Chinese fishermen had long been active in these waters as “a unilateral claim with no basis in international law”, and went on to affirm that Indonesia did not recognize the need “to have any dialogue about maritime boundary delimitation” with China.
The following day, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson reasserted China’s “historical rights”, arguing that “nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters”. He went on to reiterate China’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling of July 2016; that “the so-called award of the South China Sea arbitration is illegal, null and void and we have long made it clear that China neither accepts nor recognizes it”.
On 4 January, the Indonesian Navy launched “Operation Combat Alert Natuna Sea 2020”, including the deployment of six ships to Natuna, whilst the Air Force deployed four F-16 fighters. Four days later, on 8 January, Indonesia’s President Joko Widowi visited Natuna, for a briefing on the situation from the Joint Regional Defence Command. In addition, the government requested hundreds of Indonesian fishing vessels to enhance Indonesia’s presence in Natuna waters.
China’s response was to call for calm. Their Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed on the 7th of January China’s hope that “Indonesia will also bear in mind the bigger picture of bilateral relations”, to “stress in particular that effective China-Indonesia cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has brought tangible benefits to both peoples” and that “China stands ready to work with Indonesia to further deepen BRI cooperation”. To some extent the immediate crisis receded a bit with Chinese fishing boats reported on 9 January as withdrawing from these Natuna waters.
It remains to be seen during 2020 how inclined Indonesia will now be to be further enmeshed in China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative or to give China leeway on the ongoing protracted China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct discussions. The strategic geometry in the region may now be affected, in which continued deterioration in Indonesia-China relations paves the way for closer Indonesian convergence with the US-Japan Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).
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David Scott is a prolific author, with three books on China in the international system; an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies, and a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).