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Indonesia seeks local partners to offset Beijing in South China Sea

China Coast Guard as seen from the deck of an Indonesian Navy warship (Indonesian Navy)

Published Jan 23, 2022 5:11 PM . By

lowy interpreter

huh? by NH Tam Sang]

Tensions with China over the South China Sea have prompted Indonesia to invite maritime security officials from five ASEAN member states – Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – to meet in February to discuss a possible joint response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness. can be discussed.

Jakarta’s bold move is noteworthy as Indonesia, a non-claimant state in disputed seas, has maintained a studious silence to avoid diplomatic conflict with China. However, as the de facto leader of ASEAN, Indonesia continues to be challenged by aggressive moves by China. Over the past two years, the two countries have mutually called on their envoys to “register a protest over activities in Natuna waters” – an area contested by both Indonesia and China.

Recently, China has repeatedly demanded that Indonesia stop oil and gas drilling near the Natuna block inside Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) because the block is within Beijing’s controversial “nine-dash line”. , which was invalidated by the Permanent Court of Hague. 2016.

The standoff between Indonesia and China in the second half of 2021, coupled with Beijing’s persistent objections to Jakarta’s development projects in the South China Sea, has eroded the amount of relaxation Indonesia has to offer. In the end, Jakarta could no longer remain aloof from the disputes in the South China Sea.

Jakarta’s firm approach to closer cooperation with regional maritime-facing countries facing China’s “gray zone” strategy could provide Indonesia with a much-needed uplift. Ideally, the cooperation would provide an informal miniaturized platform to address common challenges and balance China’s maritime warfare.

Unlike its multilateral cousins, minilateral settings tend to focus on narrower and more specific topics with specialized membership, proving more effective in resolving issues that are important to those directly involved. As aptly pointed out by regional security academic Sarah Teo, small-group groups in like-minded states can reach their decisions faster than those in a multilateral architecture. In this sense, a group focused on maritime security cooperation and prevention of potential conflicts in the South China Sea has potential.

Indonesia has invited maritime security officials from five ASEAN member states to meet in February to discuss a possible joint response to Beijing’s growing assertiveness (Gunwan Kartapranata/Wikimedia)
Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are the claimant states for the disputed waters. Indonesia and Singapore are non-claimant states, but share the interests of freedom of navigation and the utmost importance of preserving peace and security in the South China Sea. The six countries agree on the need to exercise self-restraint and resolve disputes by peaceful means and the dangers they will face if China turns the South China Sea into its internal lake. In short, they should be treated as like-minded countries when it comes to the security and stability of the South China Sea.

Few countries are determined to counter Beijing’s rapidly expanding efforts in the South China Sea. The Philippines has opposed China’s deployment of armed fishing vessels and its increasing moves in the South China Sea. Vietnam lodged a protest following Beijing’s unilateral fishing ban and military transport missions in the disputed seas. In October 2021, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador to Kuala Lumpur to protest the encroachment by Beijing’s ships into its EEZ off the island of Borneo.

However, these countries should be cautiously optimistic. In addition to punitive measures, China may offer economic benefits to relatively vulnerable countries in exchange for easing its concerns over Beijing’s maritime militia presence in the South China Sea. In July 2020, the sultanate state’s economic dependence on Beijing has led Brunei to insist that talks between the countries be “coordinated with the situation in Beijing” bilaterally. Additionally, due to the lack of a bandmaster in the South China Sea, regional claimant states have been operating independently rather than forming groups of like-minded countries.

In recognizing these issues, Indonesia should take the lead in standing firm in its principles, which include managing tensions between countries through honest dialogue and legal mechanisms complying with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Is. Jakarta also needs a flexible approach in which it formulates practical plans and practical options that can involve all participating countries in tackling regional challenges.

As it is not easy for the six ASEAN countries to be on the same page, their officials should take a step-by-step approach rather than adopting an ambitious plan from the beginning. Before launching them as a group, dialogue and consultation should form the core of action plans, making practical calculations regarding “convergence of interests, threat perception and practical feasibility” among member states.

In the ensuing roundtable discussion, the six ASEAN delegates should address regional challenges by formulating collaborative plans in the spirit of sharing experiences and fostering brotherhood, as underlined by Vice Admiral Aan Kurnia, the head of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakmala). has done. Conducting bi-monthly meetings, sharing classified intelligence, and updating maritime briefings can help share experiences, increase mutual understanding, and avoid potential misconceptions among members.

The time has come for Indonesia and its counterparts to act closely and effectively. Jakarta’s leaders should create a shared sense of unity among participants by highlighting the importance of working hand-in-hand as no country can face the challenges of the South China Sea alone. Jakarta is well positioned to realize this potential conglomerate.

Hu?nh Tâm Sáng is a lecturer at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Faculty of International Relations and a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation.

This article appears to be courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and can be found in its original form here.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Maritime Executives.

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