Jakarta is calling Beijing’s bluff.
Indonesia has moved to revive regional talks on China’s long demanded “code of conduct” for the South China Sea. Will it force the new, “loveable” Xi Jinping to reveal his true colours?
Beijing is demanding that Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan surrender their territorial rights to the South China Sea. But all have rejected its claim of “historical” ownership of the 3.5 million square kilometre waterway.
Now escalating military pressure from China is forcing the traditionally non-aligned South East Asian states to seek mutual and international support.
“The situation in the South China Sea is far from stable,” Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) analyst Greg Poling says.
“Chinese vessels engaged in dangerous and escalatory encounters with those of other states regularly throughout 2022.”
Now Jakarta has put Beijing in a position where it must either put up, or shut up.
A two-day meeting of the powerful Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional bloc produced a statement stating China’s artificial island fortresses and aggressive behaviour at sea, “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”.
But the ASEAN ministers have agreed to Beijing’s demands to restart talks on a decades-old proposal for a mutual “code of conduct”.
On the surface, Beijing is pleased.
“This helps China and ASEAN members to enhance trust, build consensus, and achieve the goal of managing crises, preventing conflicts and deepening practical maritime co-operation through the establishment of rules and regulations at an early date,” Ding Duo of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies says.
The regional envoys, however, aren’t playing by Beijing’s rules.
ASEAN has invoked “the universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”.
China was one of the first to sign the UNCLOS treaty. And Chairman Xi Jinping, stung by the growing international backlash against his wolf warrior diplomatic belligerence, has begun emphasising “co-operation”, “convergence of interests,” and “open regionalism”.
But Beijing insists international law does not apply to the East and South China seas. Only its own.
What comes next may force Indonesia and Vietnam to join the Philippines in appealing for international support.
Trouble in the ’hood
Jakarta has committed $180 billion to modernise its military.
Australia’s largest neighbour is in the “advanced stages” of securing 36 new F-15 Eagle fighters from the US. This is on top of an order for 42 Rafale fighters from France announced last year.
But the world’s fourth most populous nation has also begun using its ASEAN leadership role to strengthen maritime co-operation with neighbouring countries.
“At least now ASEAN and China have a formal forum to defuse tension in the resources-rich sea,” a Jakarta Post editorial states.
“Everyone is a loser if open and armed conflicts erupt in the region no matter how powerful they are militarily and economically.”
Chairman Xi proclaimed the People’s Liberation Army’s modernisation must be complete by August 2029 – the 100th anniversary of Communist China. He says only then can the “rejuvenation of the nation” be assured.
Despite this, Xi is also attempting to convince the world he is committed to a “peaceful,” “highly complementary,” “mutually beneficial,” and “win-win,’ environment in the Asia Pacific. With conditions.
“China stands firmly against all forms of hegemonism and power politics, the Cold War mentality, interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and double standards,” Xi told a Communist Party meeting late last year.
The mixed messages have Indonesia worried.
“Although Xi emphasised peace and rejected the arbitrary use of force, Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has grown,” says University of Islam Indonesia academic Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat.
“As for Indonesia, its relationship with Beijing will be tested by China’s increasing military power and Xi’s commitment to defending his country’s sovereignty and territories.”
Pushed to the limit
Indonesia and Vietnam earlier this year peacefully negotiated the mutual exploitation of a patch of the South China Sea that falls within something of a “grey zone” under UNCLOS exclusive economic zone (EEZ) definitions.
This enables both nations to exploit local subsea natural gas reserves.
Beijing, however, is angry.
The gas field straddles the southernmost limit of its ambiguous “Nine Dash Line”. That, Beijing says, means all its wealth of fish, minerals, and fossil fuels belong solely to China.
It responded by demanding a halt to drilling and sent an enormous coast guard ship to patrol the waters north of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
But that’s just one intimidatory act by Beijing among many.
“I’m not gonna be embarrassed to say this, but our ability to operate patrolling in our EEZ around Natuna can only last days”, now-retired Indonesian general Andika Perkasa warned late last year.
But President Joko Widodo was willing to risk $208 billion worth of trade with Beijing by deploying warships to confront Chinese incursions in the area and persist with the exploration agreement with Vietnam.
Meanwhile, Beijing has continued to up the ante.
“Dozens of Chinese Coast Guard and hundreds of militia boats operated daily across the waterway, harassing Southeast Asian civilian and military vessels,” CSIS analyst Mr Poling says. “But Southeast Asian governments, for the most part, (have) held their ground.”
These incidents have motivated the Philippines to revive its military ties with the United States. And this was recently extended to allow the return of US military forces to bases within the archipelago.
While reticent about strengthening relations with the US, Hanoi has begun fortifying its own South China Sea islands.
Now Jakarta is considering its traditionally strictly non-aligned stance towards global diplomacy may no longer be tenable.
Like the rest of ASEAN, Indonesia is reluctant to step into the spotlight on the world stage. But it finds itself with little choice.
“Beyond ASEAN, Indonesia can also boost its profile by increasing collaboration with the forces of friendly countries,” university academic Mr Rakhmat writes.
“Such security partnerships, including military drills with the US and France in the last two years, are the way forward to maintaining regional security while emphasising that Indonesia is a country adhering to a neutral, free and active foreign policy.”
Choosing sides, however, remains an unpopular notion.
“I don’t think there’s a consensus that China is the adversary,” Evan Laksmana of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the National University of Singapore told the South China Morning Post.
“Some would see China as a nuisance. You will find still those who would argue that China remains the most important economic partner.”
But that position is becoming increasingly indefensible as China’s harassment of Indonesian civilian and military shipping escalates.
General Andika Perkasa, who stood down as Indonesia’s top military commander last month, said he’d like to see improvised ties with the security partnership between India, Australia, Japan and the US (the so-called “Quad”).
That brings its own problems.
“Indonesia needs to lead ASEAN in strengthening and deepening ASEAN co-operation on multiple sectors to increase its resilience from outside influence,” Indonesian Institute of Advanced International Studies analyst Muhammad Rifqi Daneswara says.
But the association’s fractured voice also risks being ignored, he adds.
“Western countries have been increasingly trying to counteract China’s power in the Indo-Pacific region using Quad and AUKUS, instead of working with ASEAN.”