Rethinking our Approach to the North Natuna Sea before Things Turn Sour

The Indonesian public has been flooded by the news surrounding China’s presence in the North Natuna Sea in the first week of 2020. China’s presence is marked by two coastguard vessels in sight. This starts to bother the tranquility within the Indonesian government’s new administration — and now Indonesia decides to double its naval presence in the said area.

While most of the public is angered by China’s intrusion to Indonesian waters, the responses from the government officials have been mixed. Some, like Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment and Indonesia’s Minister of Defense, seem to be showing a calmer response than their peers — the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to name a few.

Fortunately for Indonesia, just like any other sane country in the world, the country has different camps when it comes to how the officials see China — the “Panda Huggers” and the “Dragon Slayers” in Benjamin Shobert’s (2018) words. In his 2018 book Blaming China, Shobert describes “Panda Huggers” as the camp that sees China, mostly, in a positive light and “Dragon Slayers” as the camp that sees China, in most of ways, more negatively.

It has been several years since the last time we saw a provocation in the South China Sea that actively involves Indonesia. Since then the relations between Indonesia and China have coolen, even during the heated 2019 presidential election — where despite a strong claim to the public that one of candidates rejects “foreign” intrusion into the country, both candidates remained an arm length close to the Chinese.

China’s presence in the North Natuna Sea this week has definitely come in a very interesting time, especially given the fact that the Southeast Asian regional grouping ASEAN is in the middle of negotiating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea with China.

Historically, Indonesia has been a non-claimant country in the South China Sea dispute, despite its continuous support for the conclusion of the Code of Conduct. China on the other hand, has been saying that it fully recognizes Indonesia’s territorial integrity in the North Natuna Sea — and calling their own presence in the waters as “normal”.

The status quo before this can be considered as an “ideal” for China — with both sides refraining themselves from provoking each other and keeping the status quo as it is. Now that China enters into Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone once again, Indonesian government officials have publicly stated that they reject China’s claim on the Nine-Dash Line and the historical fishing rights. Why would China do such a provocation?

As written by a CSIS Researcher Evan Laksmana in The Jakarta Poston January 8, 2020, China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea “remain central to China’s domestic legitimacy”. China is indeed going through a challenging time dealing with its vast territory — especially those in the periphery.

It is also possible that China’s move is actually intended to bring ASEAN together, to have a united voice in finalizing the Code of Conduct as soon as possible. The Code of Conduct has long been negotiated due to the involvement of a handful of Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea dispute, and some might see the importance of an impetus or a push for the last mile negotiation.

China, as observers argue, would prefer Code of Conduct as opposed to international court or some sort in settling the South China Sea dispute. China understands its position vis-à-vis Indonesia. This is most importantly because despite the fact that Indonesia has “the full weight of International Law behind” the country, “China, like all great powers, can pick and choose which international laws or norms to follow”, Evan Laksmana writes.

It is important for China to be reminded of the significance and centrality of Indonesia vis-à-vis China’s interest in the region and in the bigger geopolitical landscape. Beyond everything, Indonesia has been a great partner to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China needs to be reminded that Indonesia was picked by its president to announce the Maritime Silk Road, the maritime leg of its Belt and Road Initiative back in 2013. Since then, Indonesia has played both a leading and a symbolic role in China’s engagement in Southeast Asia and in the region, in a wider sense. Indonesia has since shown sincere initiative for friendship and partnership, and provoking Indonesia will only jeopardize China’s interest in the country and in the region.

Indonesia has been very cooperative in considering China as a partner — pushing for the inclusion of all parties in the region when the country is trying so hard to pass the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which indirectly benefits China. The same player who used to consider China as partner could turn against China and start to consider them as a “strategic challenge”.

On the other hand, Indonesian government officials who belong to the “Panda Huggers” camp need to be reminded that nothing trumps national integrity — not even business.

After all, the move by Indonesia to consider China as a “strategic challenge” instead of a “strategic partner” will sound like music to the United States’ ears.

International Relations enthusiast