The Natuna Islands and the Inflexion of Indonesian Diplomacy in the South China Sea

Introduction: A Brewing Conflict?

Ever since the inauguration of Joko Widodo (Jokowi) as the Indonesian president in 2014 and increasingly within the current year, the international news agencies have been alarmingly heralding a brewing confrontation of two major actors in East Asia: China and Indonesia. The issue that is driving the bilateral confrontation is the Chinese’ insistence in fishing within the Natuna Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Indonesia’s hardening approach to it.

On at least three occasions during 2016, Indonesian authorities have intercepted Chinese fishing vessels in the waters within the Natuna Islands, whose 200-nautical-mile EEZ overlaps China’s “nine-dash line”. The nine dash line is, briefly, an internationally disputed assertion pushed forward by China since the end of WWII that practically claims 90% of the body of water in the South China Sea as Chinese maritime territory:

What brings this issue to the attention of the international community is the fact that each time such interceptions are made, Jakarta widely publicises the “illegal” incursions despite Beijing’s willingness of keeping such occurrences low-profile. To add to the growing media coverage, the Indonesian Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti has banked on the opportunity to make a showcase out of it. Within the last year, she has invited the press to cover the sinking of the intercepted ships with explosives, putting out a clear, innovative and aggressive message that intends to scare off any further incursions and satisfy public frustration about these events.

Furthermore, on June 2016, Indonesian President Jokowi visited the islands on a warship and promised to boost defence, fishing and natural gas production in the area. Such diplomatic and militaristic actions represent an inflexion in the bilateral relations, given that in the past, similar encroachments into Indonesian maritime territory by the Chinese had been dealt in a quiet way by both parties.

But how profound is this inflexion and how will the bilateral relations unfold in the coming years? Are the recent tensions powerful enough to wreck the “special relationship” or will Sino-Indonesian ties prove to be more robust than it is illustrated within the contemporary rhetoric? This article aims to explore these questions.

Possible Implications for the Future

Such hardening of diplomacy and military stance against China in the Natuna Islands area by the Indonesian authorities can be expected to have major implications for the bilateral relations and the South China Sea conflict in general.

Due to the escalation of the conflict within the Natunas EEZ with China, Indonesia could lose its neutrality and deal-broker role within the conflict. As the international media continues on claiming that Indonesia aims to step up its anti-China maritime strategy, it can be expected that Indonesia could find itself within the camp of claimant states in the region who have regional disputes with China. This would cause China to be further isolated on its case of asserting territorial claims, as Indonesia have been a significant regional power that it could depend on being non-partisan. Especially in terms of easing the anti-China rhetoric that is at times pushed within the ASEAN circles and the international community, Indonesia has proven on many occasions that it could serve as a pivotal and powerful nation that orientates the rhetoric back to pragmatic terms. It must also be noted that Indonesia is the only remaining non-claimant state in ASEAN that has a border with the South China Sea.

In order to find out whether such implications could become reality in the near future, first, the recent occurrences at the Natunas and then the background of the bilateral relations and the special dynamics of the Sino-Indonesian ties must be well studied.

Review of the Recent Clashes at the Natuna Islands

As the cause of the first open confrontation between the two nations, on 19 March 2016, a Chinese fishing boat entered Indonesia’s Natuna Islands EEZ and was detained by the Indonesian navy while attempting to carry out illegal trawling activities. The confrontation flared up while the boat was being pulled in towards the Natuna Islands, as a large Chinese coast guard vessel intervened and eventually succeeded to free off the fishing boat. Eight Chinese crew-members of the boat however remained in custody in Indonesia.

Following the incident the Indonesian Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta and protested that the Chinese coast guard vessel had entered Indonesian EEZ while intervening in the arrest of the Chinese fishing boat. The Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed in response:

“When the incident happened, the Chinese fishing boat was in Chinese traditional fishing grounds, doing normal productive activities. On 19 March the boat was attacked and harassed by the Indonesian armed vessel, and China’s coast guard came to the rescue. It did not enter the Indonesian waters. We demand that the Indonesian authorities immediately release the crew of the fishing boat…The sovereignty of the Natuna Islands belongs to Indonesia. Regarding the dispute on the sea, both sides should resolve it through negotiations”.

The incident gave rise to anti-China sentiment in the Indonesian political circles, especially among the anti-Jokowi factions. China took the prospect of the deterioration of the relations seriously and on April 13th, sent the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international relations committee to Jakarta for a meeting with President Jokowi. Following the meeting, Indonesia Cabinet Secretary said in a statement to the press that the Natunas incident on March was “considered to have been settled and had been due to a misunderstanding”. As much as the incident itself was a clear confrontation, it was indeed clear from the mutual declarations that the both parties were not interested in flaring up the issue further into a diplomatic row.

The second incident occured on May 27th 2016, as an Indonesian Navy frigate intercepted and fired shots at a Chinese fishing trawler in the waters just off the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian frigate then moved on to seize the fishing vessel and arrested its 8 crew members. The diplomatic statements from both parties were identical to the first incident following this event — mild, conciliatory and aiming to ease the tensions.

Another Chinese fishing boat came under Indonesian navy fire on June 17th 2016 while fishing in waters off the Natuna islands. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson described the incident as, “While operating normally in China’s traditional fishing grounds in the southwest of the South China Sea on June 17, Chinese fishing boats were harassed and shot by several Indonesian navy vessels… China urges the Indonesian side to stop taking actions that complicate, exaggerate the dispute and undermine peace and stability, and handle the fishery issue at sea in a constructive way”. Following the third incident Indonesian President Jokowi led a high level visit to the Natunas to show off its country’s military might, but did not address any country in particular in its statements.

The Complex Diplomacy Between China and Indonesia

Following the 19 March 2016 incident, Global Times, the English-language newspaper known to be close to the Communist Party, published an opinion piece arguing that:

“There is no territorial dispute between China and Indonesia in South China Sea. Jakarta claimed the area that the Chinese vessel fished in is within the EEZ derived from the Natuna islands, but it also overlaps part of China’s nine-dash line.”

The following declarations on the issue by the Chinese Foreign Ministry also confirmed this stance. The ambiguous nature of the statement on the Global Times is critical to understanding the attitude of China towards Natuna Islands EEZ.

This article aims to both claim that Chinese vessels are entitled to their fishing grounds around the Natunas, but still, the area belongs to Indonesia — a purposefully confusing diplomatic stance. Such a stance is very different than the way China handles their maritime disputes with the Philippines or Vietnam, where it openly and clearly goes against their claims in a dismissive way. The objective of accepting the Natunas EEZ as Indonesian, yet as a Chinese traditional fishing ground is to basically tell Indonesia:

“These waters are yours, we do not aim to antagonise you over them but we need to stretch our fishing excursions as much as possible, so do not frame these confrontations as a sovereignty issue”.

Indonesia has indeed never recognised the nine-dash line. According to Indonesians, since both countries accept the 1982 UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it can be assumed that China accepts the Natunas EEZ. For this reason, over the years, both Beijing and Jakarta repeatedly claimed that there is no territorial dispute between them. However, the Global Times article changed that course as it stated that in fact, there is a dispute over the Natunas EEZ as “it overlaps with the nine-dash line”. This puts Jakarta in a position to make a diplomatic decision: fall in the category of a claimant state and pursue further legal action against China to dismiss its “Nine-Dash-Line” or handle this issue on a case-by-case basis, where the intrusive vessels get intercepted each time but the dispute is not raised into an international crisis level.

Regarding this decision, there are certain domestic signals that Indonesia can be compelled to confront China further. The March 2016 incident attracted a lot of public attention in Indonesia. Many major Jakarta newspapers published editorials and reports, some of which were very critical of Beijing’s unapologetic statements. In the Indonesian parliament, certain members were directly critical of China, and the Defence and Foreign affairs committee demanded Jokowi to manage the issue more seriously, arguing that Chinese activities in the Natuna waters should be seen as a sign that Beijing wanted to lay claim over the area. Public opinion therefore, is brewing against the Chinese with every incident.

But Indonesian elites are not unified about their stance against China and there has been powerful voices sounding alternative and more mild messages. Despite the hostile build up in the parliamentary circles and the media, Minister for Defence Ryamizard Ryacudu has refused to link the incident to China’s unilateral claim on the South China Sea. He noted,

“We know very well that the army should be well disciplined, but there are always members of the army who are undisciplined. It is possible that the incident was caused by undisciplined personnel within the army…Therefore I would like to seek clarification from the Chinese ambassador myself”.

What is noteworthy is that his response to the incident was a conciliatory one, bringing significant ambiguity to the stance of Indonesia against China about its own security and defence.

A similar show of ambivalence in Indonesian authorities’ declarations occurred also on an earlier occasion during November 2015, before even such clashes occurred during the early months of 2016. Coordinating Security Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, a retired general, told the Indonesian press that if the issue of the Natuna Islands EEZ and the nine-dash-line could not be resolved, Indonesia would bring it to the International Criminal Court. Though widely publicised and noted internationally, it is not clear why Luhut made such a statement and in which context. The representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Armanate Nasir, however, told pressmen in a compensating way that he did not want to comment on Luhut’s statement and affirmed instead that there is no territorial dispute between Indonesia and China. In 12 November 2015, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei responded to the Luhut statement, echoing their Indonesian counterparts:

“Indonesia did not claim any territory in the South China Sea. The Natuna Islands belong to Indonesia, China does not have any disagreement.”

Such back-and-forth diplomacy against China within the Indonesian élite is too prevalent and incessant to be considered as a coincidence or sheer ambivalence. It illustrates how the authorities aim to on one side satisfy public thirst for a hard stance against the Chinese incursions, while assuring Beijing that they do not aim to antagonise China on a grand scale where it puts them in the position of a claimant state. The consistent, patient and mild nature of the Chinese diplomats must also be considered as critical, as it demonstrates their unwillingness to face Indonesia directly about sovereignty issues while refusing to give any guarantees that no such incursions will happen in the future. What could be the reason for such a purposefully confusing handling of this issue on both sides? The strategic nature of the bilateral relations and the domestic realities of Indonesia must be explored in a wider perspective to be able to answer this question.

Sino-Indonesian Relations in a wider perspective

The Indonesian archipelago stretches more than 4,800 kilometers at the juncture of two Asian oceans, the Indian and the Pacific with 17,508 islands, of which 6,000 are inhabited. What initially united these distinct and ethnically varied islands was anti-imperialist and nationalist movements and later the decades anti-communist fervour under military rule held them together. After emerging from the New Order rule of longtime President Suharto since the end of the 90s, the country has sought a new unifying strategy.

Under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who took office in 2014, that particular strategy has been to make Indonesia a “maritime fulcrum” between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Controlling its own seas is now framed as essential to keeping the nation together as it also enables Indonesia to increase its prominence in Asia. Due to their strategic location as the “front-door” of the nation, Natuna Islands have become a priority in this new unifying scheme.

Besides the political motives, the islands provide access to vital resources as well. The fisheries near the Natunas are not depleted yet, unlike most of the region in general and Jakarta aims to increase its catch from the Natunas area from 9.3% to 40% of its total fish stocks by 2017. Furthermore, the East Natuna Field, in the northern part of the Natuna EEZ, is the largest untapped natural gas field in Asia, containing an estimated 1.3 trillion cubic meters of recoverable natural gas. The Natunas therefore, is not simply a source of pride, but of material importance. It is also crucial to note that China has not been threatening the Natunas gas fields at all, unlike the way it does in similar areas disputed with Vietnam or the Philippines.

Upon this context, the political and historical realities of Sino-Indonesian relationship must also be revisited briefly. This would make clearer why the Jokowi administration directs the public attention to the Natunas, in order to unify the national sentiment with a populist approach, while being ambivalent when it comes to confronting China formally, unlike the way the Philippines or Vietnam does.

Indonesia has been a vital ally to China at many points during the 20th Century, at times at the extent of forming an axis against the West. During the Cold War, China has been a major power, arguably along with the Soviet Union, that supported Sukarno’s anti-Imperialist policies, such as withdrawing from the UN and attempting form a similar organisation of their own. Against Malaysia or the Philippines, which has perpetually aligned itself with the West, China has been a crucial pivot for Indonesia to depend on political disputes on its maritime borders and avoid being isolated in the international arena. The bilateral relationship might have deteriorated at certain phases later during the century as Indonesia oriented towards a more Western outlook, but Jakarta’s relations with Beijing have improved dramatically since diplomatic ties were restored in 1990.

Sino-Indonesian commerce has now been steadily growing but Japan is still the top trade partner of the archipelago. Japanese FDI in Indonesia also dwarfs Chinese investment in the proportions of 33.5% to 2.7%, respectively. As much as it is an important business partner, it would be misleading to claim Indonesia is dependant upon China economically. Jakarta’s strategic proximity to the Chinese could be more distinctly explained through realist politics: common rivalries and strategic hedging.

Out of hundreds of ships that were sunk over the last year for illegal fishing in Indonesian EEZ, very few were Chinese. In many of the “sinking events”, Chinese boats were not even included and most boats have always been from Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. It is clear then that the biggest headache for the Indonesian Coast Guard has not been the Chinese but the their closer neighbours’ vessels, all of which are in turn claimant states against China in terms of maritime sovereignty. Both sides, hence, need each other not to be isolated in their own matters and have every reason to keep their pragmatic collaboration running.

It can be therefore argued that Jokowi’s new hardline stance within its maritime borders is not an “anti-China” move, but a holistic strategy that does not target any country in particular. The Natunas offer significant amounts of fish, natural gas and national pride for Indonesians and their protective stance about these islands must not be framed as a hostile move directed at the PRC. The reason Indonesia has been much more public about Chinese incursions can be explained with domestic realities: sinking a Filipino ship simply does not create the immense amount of pride and popularity for an administration that sinking a Chinese ship does. Showcasing against the Chinese is more of a domestic policy than an international reorientation and shall not mistaken as an open political hostility against the Middle Kingdom. It could be predicted that Indonesia will be continue to be hesitant to lose its neutrality and strategic hedge within the region over a few fishing vessels, unlike the way the contemporary rhetoric frames it.