Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest country, recently rejected China’s offer to hold bilateral talks on overlapping claims in the South China Sea. The Indonesian government has reiterated its position on the rule of international law by approaching United Nations that it has historic rights in the South China Sea and rejected China’s claims over a disputed part of the region as “having no legal basis.”
The year began with a major maritime standoff with Indonesia near the South China Sea when dozens of Chinese coastguard vessels illegally entered waters off Natuna Islands inside Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) but also claimed by China. Indonesia termed the Chinese aggression as “violation of sovereignty” and responded swiftly by deploying warships and F-16 fighter jets to patrol the region that made Chinese vessels to retreat.
President Joko Widodo personally flew to the area in an unusual show of strength from the country. The South China Sea is one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, with competing claims from China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Indonesia. China’s territorial claim, known as the ‘nine-dash-line’—owing to the markings printed on Chinese maps of the region—is by far the largest and encompass almost the entirety of the sea, from Hainan Island down to the top of Indonesia.
But China’s claim has no basis under international law. The Natunas are located about 1,100 km south of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China claims that it has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their waters and that both China and Indonesia have ‘normal’ fishing activities there.
China’s claim to South China Sea territories were rejected in 2016 following the Philippines won its claim before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague which found Chinese claim invalid. China has since not accepted the ruling.
Despite all this, China continuously bolsters its territorial ambitions by building artificial islands on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea and then militarizing them with aircraft strips, harbors and radar facilities. The Chinese coast guard ships and fishing vessels have a long history of harassing other countries’ vessels in the region, mostly Vietnam and Philippines and also occasionally from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Indonesia stands firm against Chinese claim
Rejecting China’s claim, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that “our diplomatic note to UN on May 26 reiterated our objections among others to the Chinese so-called-nine-dash-line or so-called historic rights.” She further added “in that note, Indonesia also called for full compliance towards UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) 1982 which China had ratified.” Indonesia then issued another note on June12, which rejected the offer of talks with the Chinese. There is no legal reasoning under international law to conduct negotiations on maritime boundaries delimitation with China, said the note.
“No historic rights exists in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China. Should there be any historic rights existing prior to the entry into force of UNCLOS 1982, those rights were superseded by the provisions of UNCLOS 1982,” the note stated.
The note was meant to “further reiterate our consistent position that under UNCLOS 1982, there are no such overlapping claims. For this reason, there is nothing to negotiate,” the Minister said on June18.
This is not the first time Indonesia has sent diplomatic notes to the UN regarding the South China Sea as it has previously sent a similar note in 2010. Then, Indonesia also said that the nine-dash line map of China has no legal basis.
Indonesia views China as a vital trade partner, but tensions in the South China Sea and controversy over the treatment of Uygur Muslims in China add to the lingering anti-China sentiments in the country. As the world’s largest Muslim majority country, hundreds of Indonesian Muslim protested in front of the Chinese embassy in Jakarta over the Uyghur issue, urging the government to pressure Beijing on it.
By reigniting a dispute with Indonesia over control of the Natuna Islands, China appeared to be asserting its expansionist territorial claims. What drove China to stake out its sovereignty claim against Indonesia at this particular time?
China’s growing aggression in the region is partly driven by the coronavirus pandemic, which has dealt a heavy blow to China’s rapid economic growth and damaged the country’s international reputation. Concerned about its grip on power slipping, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is resorting to its rhetoric and nationalist agenda which includes control of the South China Sea.
Indonesia has been exercising restraint and patient so far with China’s repeated transgression of its waters. It has in the past opened fire on the Chinese vessels that failed to leave its waters, and President Widodo’s tough stand showed that he would not let it go quietly. But Jakarta’s patience in this regard may be wearing thin..