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Why Indonesia’s aggressive stance on China in South China Sea may fall short

Indonesian marine officers get ready for a ceremony in Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta. Taking aggressive steps vis-a-vis China could overturn its growing defence cooperation with China – ANTARA FOTO/Muhammad Adimaja/wsj

By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

Defying the global COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese fishing fleets with the support of armed Chinese Coast Guard ships have been penetrating Indonesia’s territory in the past few months.

The move is part of China’s growing militarisation of the South China Sea.

Replacing its previous soft protest against China’s invasion, Indonesia has recently taken more aggressive steps.

This month, for example, in a show of force, the Indonesian Navy carried out a four-day exercise near Natuna Islands, an Indonesian territory near the “nine-dash line”, which marks Beijing’s claim over the contested waters.

The line encircles as much as 90% of the contested waters and runs 2,000 kilometres from China’s mainland.

In May, Indonesia, through a strongly worded diplomatic note to the United Nations, also rejected Beijing’s claim that its maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are guaranteed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Although this was not the first time Jakarta has stated its position, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Gregory Poling, said it was the first time that ASEAN country stood up and strongly challenged the Chinese claim.

These increasingly aggressive responses, however, may fall short given Indonesia’s dependence on China.

Growing military relations

In the past year, the Indonesian military has also taken an aggressive stance on China’s intrusion into Indonesian territory.

In January, Indonesian and Chinese vessels were involved in a standoff after Chinese fishing vessels were spotted operating inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Jakarta responded to the incident by raising its combat alert status and deploying F-16 fighters and naval ships to the islands.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo personally visited the region, in an unusual demonstration of resolve.

Indonesia’s armed forces have since established a Maritime Information Centre in the islands to track and intercept any ships deemed to be violating the Exclusive Economic Zone.

However, those moves may be in vain given the expansion of Indonesia’s defence engagement with China in recent years.

In December 2018, for instance, Jokowi appointed an Indonesian general as the defence attaché at the Indonesian embassy in Bejing for the first time.

Following Prabowo’s inauguration as defence minister in 2019, China was the first major power Prabowo visited as minister.

During his visit, Prabowo met General Wei and the deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Xu Qiliang, to discuss defence cooperation.

During the current pandemic, Indonesia has maintained its military cooperation with China, receiving medical aid and supplies.

On March 23, an Indonesian Air Force C-130 Hercules plane carried around 8 tons of medical equipment from China.

On May 12, a Chinese military aircraft carrying medical supplies landed in Jakarta.

In late 2019, it was also reported that Indonesia planned a US$200 billion purchase of naval patrol ships from China, although it was cancelled under US pressure.

Taking aggressive steps vis-a-vis China could overturn its growing defence cooperation with Indonesia.

China has the world’s largest and fastest-modernising military force and the second-largest defence budget in the world. Indonesia needs to maintain its strategic partnership with the largest regional power.

Economic dependence

Another important factor is Indonesian economic dependency on China.

The latter is the second-biggest investor in Indonesia and the country’s largest trading partner.

Chinese investment is urgently needed to revive Indonesia’s economy. It is expected to remain sluggish next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many Chinese projects under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) are also being built in the country. This includes the  high-speed railway connecting Jakarta and West Java’s capital, Bandung.

Although there is no data available, the growth of Chinese investments is directly proportional to the increasing ratio of Indonesia’s debt to China. The debt stands at around US$17.75 billion, making China the fourth-largest holder of total Indonesian foreign debts.

The intensified economic bilateral cooperation between China and Indonesia means Jakarta has limited options to act aggressively in the South China Sea unless it is prepared to lose its largest trading partner and one of its largest investors.

Other strategies

Indonesia perhaps need to pursue different ways to face China in the South China Sea.

One of these is to be aware that while Indonesia needs China economically, China needs Indonesia as well.

If we look at the official map of the BRI, for instance, Indonesia is crucial as it is one of the focal points along the maritime routes of the initiatives.

This means Jakarta has sway in the realisation of the BRI. Indonesia can thus put economic pressure on China if it insists on pursuing its militarisation in the sea.

Moreover, this could be a wake-up call for Indonesia to lessen its dependency on China by trying to widen its cooperation with other countries, like the Middle Eastern countries, if it wants to have a stronger standing vis-à-vis China.


Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat tidak bekerja, menjadi konsultan, memiliki saham, atau menerima dana dari perusahaan atau organisasi mana pun yang akan mengambil untung dari artikel ini, dan telah mengungkapkan bahwa ia tidak memiliki afiliasi selain yang telah disebut di atas.

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