Why should Indonesia be wary about China’s offer to talk?

Siswanto Rusdi Director The National Maritime Institute (NAMARIN)

IO – A contradictory stand to its own rhetoric of prioritizing ‘negotiation over disputes’, Indonesia has declined a Chinese offer to discuss the South China Sea issue, on the grounds that this country does not have any overlapping claims with Beijing over economic zones. Damos Dumoli Agusman, Director General of International Law and Treaties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated, “Based on 1982 UNCLOS Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with the PRC, so it is not relevant to hold any dialogue on maritime boundary delimitation.” 

I Made Andi Arsana, an academic with Yogyakarta-based Gajah Mada University, reiterated and concurred with the government’s position and observed that Indonesia’s claim is based on international law, while China’s is unilateral. Similarly, Hikmahanto Juwana, an International Relations professor at the University of Indonesia, reportedly said Indonesia should never allow itself to be lured into any discussions with China over maritime spaces. 

While Indonesia’s position is acceptable, China’s offer to discuss maritime issues does in fact merit discussion. There are several reasons worthy to ponder over Indonesia-China relations, particularly on maritime issues. Indonesia has no claim over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands, though they are a littoral state of the South China Sea. Nevertheless, Indonesia and China do have serious fishing issues to solve. The problem has been consistently pushing both sides to the brink of open military conflict in the South China Sea, the most recent example of which was in January of this year. The tension ended up as usual: Jakarta withdrew its warships and jet fighters while Beijing pulled out its Coast Guard vessel that had escorted a Chinese fishing armada poaching in Indonesia’s waters. Earlier, in 2016, both sides were involved in a standoff over the same issue and at the same spot; a similar “settlement” course was chosen. However, the underlying problem, has remained unsolved. 

Within this context, China’s offer of talk may be construed as its effort to seek a permanent solution with Indonesia on illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing and re-strengthen maritime ties, specifically in the research sector, which suffered under a draconian policy decreed by President Joko Widodo’s administration during his first term in office. Looking at the way Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry selected language in its letter to the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres in response to Indonesia’s diplomatic note, Beijing’s intention is quite interesting. According to the media, the Chinese government acknowledges that it has no territorial dispute with Indonesia, but did mention the two countries had overlapping claims over maritime rights in parts of the South China Sea. 

“Maritime rights” is indeed an important issue on which 1982 UNCLOS is highly attentive, providing a mass of provisions on the rights obtained by states, even for countries that have no seacoast (or are landlocked). It also made clear that any dispute arising from the rights execution by states should be negotiated bilaterally or brought to third parties like a court, arbitration panel or tribunal. The Convention has established a tribunal to handle disputes among states concerning the Law of the Sea, namely the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, Germany. 

That is why China eagerly proposes direct negotiation with Indonesia, avoiding the involvement of third parties, such as the Philippines, with which it is currently entangled in a similar dispute.. As is widely known, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines concerning certain issues in the South China Sea, including the legality of China’s Nine-dash Line. Beijing simply said that based on regulations, the legal standing of the case was weak and it therefore would not recognize the validity of the arbitration, making the ruling inapplicable. 

From an economic perspective, the country is apparently aware that unstable maritime relations could be politicized by local groups in Indonesia to trigger fresh anti-China sentiment, jeopardizing the well-established economic cooperation between Jakarta and Beijing. Such feelings are easily manipulated, as when the two countries were involved in tensions in the South China Sea. At that time, thousands of demonstrators protested outside the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, demanding Indonesian government to declare the Chinese ambassador persona non grata. The national media was full of adverse comments on the China-Indonesia business relationship. 

Indonesia’s rejection of a proposal for negotiations on the South China Sea issue submitted by China also stems from its unfortunate experience in the dispute with Malaysia over Sipadan and Ligitan. If it accepts China’s offer, there are fears that nightmare might recur. So, it would therefore be advisable to avoid discussions on the issue, whatever be the consequences. This psychological trait indicates that Indonesia is not completely sure about its position on the question of Law of the Sea although it repeatedly claims it is legally in the right. Furthermore, it also exposes the weak legal capacity of the country to field competent maritime lawyers to counter China’s claims (if any). The logic can be faulty and the best way to confirm it is through negotiations. Under these circumstances, there would be no harm in engaging China in a dialogue over fisheries issues.