Southeast Asia

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Southeast Asia
Indonesia and the South China Sea: Between the Nine-Dash Line and an EEZ

  Nancy Pathak

During the COVID-19 pandemic,  China has become assertive with its maritime claims in the South China Sea. Indonesia is not in a strong situation to uphold its UNCLOS based rights to EEZ boundaries until a strong anti-Chinese-expansionist lobby comes for its support. 

South China Sea witnesses one-third of the global shipping, trade worth $5.3 trillion a year and 80 percent of China's oil imports. It connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. It is needless to say that China sees the region as both a gateway to dominating the world trade and also as a death trap capable of cutting off its energy supplies from the Indian Ocean, at the small entry from Strait of Malacca. 

China has repeatedly challenged the Exclusive Economic Zones of the neighbouring countries by its nine-dash line claims which go against the maritime boundaries marked by the United Nations Convention on the Laws of Sea. 

Indonesia's stand against China's bullying in the South China Sea
Indonesia is a strategic partner for China in the region, especially because it is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute and is a key link in China's Belt and Road initiative. China is Indonesia's largest donor as well as a trading partner. Despite the above, Indonesia has been wary of Chinese investments in its infrastructure projects and the possibility of a Chinese debt trap. 

While the world is grappling with the pandemic, and the balance of power seems to be shaking, with relative economic advantage, China has become more assertive in the region.  2020 began with a standoff between Indonesia and China in the Natuna Islands when Chinese fishing vessels started operating in Indonesia's Exclusive economic zones. Although Indonesian EEZ lies outside the nine-dash line, the water around Indonesia's Natuna island has been claimed by China as a part of its cow's tongue territory. Mao's strategy of "Unity and struggle" still guides China's negotiations with Indonesia wherein China continues to engage in profitable bilateral trade relations while exchanging aggression over territorial issues at the same time with it.

Since the UNCLOS declaration in favour of the Philippines' EEZ in 2016, China started reclaiming land and building up several artificial islands in the South China Sea. It added seven artificial islands to the South China Sea, establishing Chinese military bases in each one of them, threatening the sovereignty of the neighbouring nations on their EEZs. Undermining the territories determined by the UNCLOS, China is coercing the neighbouring countries into bilateral negotiations on their maritime boundaries by cutting off their water supply from Mekong River. China has employed bullying tactics like cabbage strategy of surrounding their islands with Chinese vessels and cutting off their Islands of any incoming food, goods or energy supplies. By the mid of the year, Beijing started pushing Indonesia for bilateral negotiations on its EEZ and Indonesia's North Natuna sea. Indonesia has kept its stand clear, based on UNCLOS 1982, Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with PRC and refused to hold any dialogue on maritime boundary delimitation with China. 

Indonesia as an important strategic player in South China sea
Indonesia, the largest country in the region, is expected to play a  leadership role to counter Chinese expansionism in the sea. Indonesia has been at the centre of the economic tug-of-war between various groupings such as Tran-Pacific Partnership, China-led Asian development bank and various other Asia-Pacific based initiatives, hedging the benefits from both the groupings. Yet, it has always remained committed to the UNCLOS and towards freedom of navigation in the international waters.

Given Indonesia's crucial role in the region, Indonesia finds itself in a tight spot, unable to offer its leadership in South China sea because of the following: first, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is almost dead now, and the ASEAN economies which have been hit hard by the COVID-19 induced recession, are left to fend on their own against an aggressive dragon economy which has shown relative stability through this crisis. Second, the US has been preoccupied with COVID economy and maintaining its areas of influence is not a priority for Washington now. There are apprehensions about US betrayal of other countries like it failed the Philippines against China.

Indonesia's Internal turmoil
Indonesia has been grappling with its own internal problems such as the rise of fundamentalism.  Its economy had contracted by 5.32 per cent in the second quarter and is nearing a certain recession in third-quarter showing no signs of early recovery. Also, Indonesia's military strength is no match for the Chinese military, which is third-largest in the world. Indonesia spends only one per cent of its budget on defence as against NATO's recommended budget of two per cent. Its force is just 8,76,000 strong against a whooping 5 million soldiers of China's people's liberation army.

Indonesia's joint military patrols with the US, Japan, Australia and the Philippines in the South China Sea have maintained enough pressure to keep China from going vocal about its nine-dash line claims.

The COVID-19 has diverted the resources and attention of many countries towards dealing with economic recession and health catastrophe. This has worsened the situation for the UN-led world order.  With the weakening of the international organizations, the UNCLOS claims seem to be in danger against the nine-dash line claims of China. Indonesia can be the cornerstone of negotiations in the South China Sea, but given the current circumstances, it needs diplomatic partners to keep South China Sea free from intimidation, for international navigation and trade. 

About the author

Dr Nancy Pathak is an Assistant Professor (Guest), Delhi University

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