Last week, while in Japan, Indonesian President Joko Widodo declared that China's nine-dash line has no basis in international law. This statement, in turn, stimulated much discussion among Indonesia watchers.
Most notably, they wondered, is this a shift in Indonesian foreign policy? Is this a part of Jokowi's seemingly hardline stance on maritime affairs? The consensus, best summed up by The Diplomat's Prashanth Parameswaran, is that Jokowi's comment doesn't signal a policy change. Rather, it is simply a continuation of a complicated, delicate status quo that's been in place for years. Indeed, that's how Rizal Sukma, a Joko foreign policy adviser, has interpreted Jokowi's statement, saying that "In 2009, Indonesia sent its official stance on the issue to the UN commission on the delimitation of the continental shelf, stating that the nine-dotted line has no basis in international law....So, nothing changes.”
My immediate reaction to Jokowi's comment wasn't to ask whether there's a policy change afoot, important as that might be, but to question whether Indonesia's policy toward the South China Sea is sustainable over time.
At bottom, Indonesia seeks to have its cake and eat it too. Its officials at times criticize China, which plays well locally, among Indonesians, as well as regionally, especially among ASEAN countries that have their own waterway/territory disputes with China. It's Indonesia's way of showing some sympathy to its neighbors. At the same time, though, Indonesia wants to act as an honest broker in the South China Sea disputes. Such a role burnishes Indonesia's credentials as a regional leader. Yet that could be jeopardized eventually if Jokowi, or his successor, continues to play up the role of international law as a dispute resolution mechanism; after all, China sees no international body, structure or formal gathering as having any place in the muddy South China Sea imbroglio.
On top of all this, Indonesia wants to ramp up its trade and investments ties to China. On Jokowi's trip to China, which followed his jaunt to Japan, he managed to get Xi Jinping to agree to a number of deals on construction and investment opportunities. There is even talk of hooking Jokowi's Global Maritime Axis to Xi's Silk Road initiatives. The joint statement released after their meeting explicitly stated that the GMA and SR are "complementary" and that both sides are working toward a maritime partnership. It makes sense. Think about it. China is looking to build up or create from scratch all sorts of ports and embark on widespread inland construction in the region, giving it a firmer base to expand its influence, boost trade, and ensure the safe passage of its trade. Meantime, Indonesia needs help better connecting all of its islands together.
For now, China seems content with Indonesia, save for an occasional outburst from the Indonesian military, and with good reason. China and Indonesia have good military, political and economic relations. Specifically, with respect to the South China Sea issues, Indonesia hasn't created any trouble for China. Its political officials maintain that Jakarta isn't a party to any of the disputes in the sea. And by seeking to be a so-called "honest broker," Indonesia ostensibly wants to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problems in the South China Sea. Or at a minimum, Indonesia's preference to act as a regional mediators shows China that Indonesia wants to stay above the fray, maintaining some distance, from the disputes there.
Moreover, I suspect China is optimistic that the promise of steadily burgeoning economic relations with Indonesia will prevent Indonesia from ever completely turning on its benefactor. That's the part of the "win-win" relations that Beijing often talks about. China's trade and investment partners receive economic and infrastructure benefits, among other things, from China, while China gets growing political influence and clout over these nations. This is in part why China thinks that time is on its side in achieving its regional ambitions. Little by little, via piecemeal political, economic and military encroachments, China is shifting the regional balance of power to its advantage and is fostering a culture of dependence upon which other countries are going to find it hard to break.
All of this begs a few questions, however.
1. How do Indonesian officials preserve their country's independence and sovereignty in the face of increasing influence by Beijing? How can Indonesia avoid being sucked into China's orbit?
2. Indonesian political leaders have consistently downplayed any dispute with China, even though its nine-dash line cuts through the EEZ extending from the waters of the Natuna Islands. I get the sense that they believe that if they don't rock the boat, then China is mostly fine the way things are--that Beijing won't make a big deal about the waters. Perhaps, at least in the short-term. Of course, China does have lots disputes on its plate already, so it probably doesn't make much sense to add another one. Plus, Indonesia sees no need to recklessly antagonize China.
But what about the longer-term? What if a restless China turns its sights on the waters of the Natunas? It could happen due to a number of factors. Perhaps China begins to harbor doubts about Indonesia, questioning if Jakarta is really an honest broker and has sincere intentions, and as a result decides to push the envelope, so to speak. Or maybe a stronger, better armed China, one that's flush with confidence and uber-competitiveness, attempts to seize by force all of its claims in the South China Sea. Or perhaps the current ASEAN claimants eventually capitulate to China's demands in the South China Sea, which leads China to view ASEAN members as weak and vulnerable, ripe for opportunism, causing China to expand its claims in the South China Sea and beyond. What happens then? Does Indonesia have back-up plan? Is Indonesia's political and military establishment ready to shift into a different gear to protect the national interest?