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South China Sea: Litmus Test for Indonesia-China Defense Ties

A U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon reconaissance aircraft circled over a Chinese Coast Guard vessel during a Philippines Navy re-supply mission of an outpost on a remote shoal in the South China Sea on August 22, 2023. TED ALJIBE / AFP

On April 12, Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Wu Qian told the media that China intended to bolster military ties with Indonesia. Wu Qian made the remark after Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto’s recent visit to China–the first overseas trip since Prabowo won the election in February.

The statement signifies the growing importance of the Indonesia-China relationship. But for the partnership to flourish, a critical challenge facing both countries must be resolved: the South China Sea. Without a serious, concerted effort to tackle the issue, neither can achieve the full potential of the defense partnership.

China and Indonesia have for many years weaved cooperation in defense and security, including policy synchronization, military commerce, personnel education, joint drills, and defense technology. However, the partnerships primarily exist as an informal mechanism that lacks binding force. Their effectiveness often hinges on bilateral and multilateral interests, vulnerable to shifts in national priorities. 

For instance, the “China-ASEAN Defense and Security Dialogue”, which was launched in 2010 as a platform for the two sides to discuss regional defense and security issues, was suspended after just two meetings. The suspension showed the fragility of such arrangements. 

The absence of long-term perspectives and comprehensive strategies in security cooperation poses significant challenges. While some initiatives, like the Technical Committee Meeting on Marine Cooperation, which aimed to strengthen China-Indonesia cooperation on maritime security, demonstrate progress, the lack of sustained engagement and concrete action limits their effectiveness.

Therefore, the South China Sea is the real litmus test for the future of Indonesia-China’s defense ties. If both countries can successfully overcome the challenge, they will enjoy a warmer relationship based on deeper trust. Currently, the condition is precarious.

As Indonesia and China navigate the complexities of defense cooperation, the issue of the South China Sea emerges as a pivotal factor.

Muhammad Zulfikar

Despite international rulings and objections from neighboring states, China is unwavering in its assertiveness in the disputed area, heating up tensions. This situation is a primary risk for potential military confrontations with foreign actors, which makes it a top security priority for Indonesia. Given the events in December 2023 involving the Philippines, it appears that China will continue its current approach.

From the onset of the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia has consistently maintained its stance as a non-claimant state in the region. With this position, Indonesia asserts itself as an impartial mediator. 

Unfortunately, China’s nine-dash line claim encroaches upon Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna islands. Despite China’s recognition of Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna islands, it contends that the waters surrounding them constitute Chinese “traditional fishing grounds.” Indonesia has refuted this claim, stating that it lacks legal validity.

Chinese fishing vessels, often escorted by Chinese coast guard ships, have repeatedly breached Indonesian waters near the Natuna islands. Indonesia chooses to settle the issue through its “Second-Track Diplomacy,” again acting as a mediator to resolve disputes. Jakarta is adamant about avoiding provoking China due to economic ties and preventing escalation towards conflict. 

Indeed, an increased military tension could potentially bring environmental damage to the marine ecosystems in the South China Sea. Beyond that, it could also strain Indonesia-China’s bilateral relations in various sectors, including trade, investment, and infrastructure development.

China may reassess its economic engagements with Indonesia if it perceives the situation as detrimental to its interests or if it wants to exert pressure on Indonesia for political reasons. The deepening economic bilateral cooperation between China and Indonesia limits Jakarta’s options for aggressive action in the South China Sea unless it is willing to lose its largest trading partner and one of its major investors.

Despite developments like the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and ongoing negotiations for a Code of Conduct (CoC), the dispute remains a pressing regional concern. The CoC aims to regulate activities in the South China Sea, preventing arbitrary actions or threats to the sovereignty of other nations. 

The code has been in the works for over two decades, but the agreement remains elusive as the countries involved are unable to reach a consensus. China’s reluctance to adhere to the principles outlined in the 1982 Maritime Convention has also not made things easier.

Analysts argue that securing a CoC agreement is crucial for balancing China’s presence in the South China Sea while ensuring the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes based on international law. Nonetheless, efforts by ASEAN member countries to expedite CoC negotiations face challenges from the region’s economic dependence on China.

As Indonesia and China navigate the complexities of defense cooperation, the issue of the South China Sea emerges as a pivotal factor. A peaceful and cooperative resolution will enhance regional stability and lay the foundation for deeper trust and collaboration between the two nations. 

To achieve that, Indonesia and China must demonstrate a genuine commitment to dialogue, cooperation, and conflict resolution. They must prioritize shared interests and take mutual concerns seriously. 

More broadly, addressing security challenges in Southeast Asia requires a multifaceted approach that integrates traditional and nontraditional security measures. Only through collective efforts and constructive engagement can the full potential of defense cooperation be realized, paving the way for a safer and more secure future for Southeast Asia.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is the Director of the China-Indonesia Desk at the Center of Economic and Law Studies (CELIOS).

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