China is raising pressure on Indonesia over rights to use a contested tract of sea and challenging the militarily weaker Southeast Asian country to consider options from friendly dialogue to strong protests.
Indonesia spotted as many as 63 "trespassing" Chinese vessels in 30 locations within its maritime exclusive economic zone last month, the research platform East Asia Forum says in a January 15 report. Another spate followed in early January. Chinese coast guard vessels had escorted some, media reports from Jakarta say.
Though not a first between the two big Asian countries, this escalation near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands raises the specter of a new flash point in a normally quiet part of the broader, heavily disputed South China Sea.
"On the Indonesian side, I think that there’s a growing sense at the security level that China is becoming a more problematic actor," said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.
China may hope Indonesia will bargain over the tract of sea that’s near the 272 tiny Natuna islands northwest of Borneo, possibly in exchange for economic aid, Asia scholars say.
But if Indonesia fears talks would validate China’s claim, it might instead make diplomatic protests instead or get help from powerful Western-allied countries that already resent China's maritime expansion.
"I think you’ll see a lot more of China pushing not just on us but on Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines and others through incursions and get us to eventually acknowledge their right to a negotiation, and I think this is why we’re still very much resisting the notion that we should come and talk to the Chinese about this," said Evan Laksamana, senior researcher for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Jakarta.
"And I think China also doesn’t want to make (the coordinates of its claim) that clear yet, so that’s why these are kind of gradual, low-level incursions, that of course I think will escalate if Indonesia doesn’t respond strongly and forcefully and provide actual diplomatic protest notes so that under international law we always challenge China’s incursions," Laksamana said.
China vies separately with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines over parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea north of the Natuna Islands. China uses a nine-dash line, sourcing it to maritime records from dynastic times, to claim about 90% of the waterway that multiple countries value for its fisheries and undersea fossil fuel reserves. The nine dashes cut into the Indonesian exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
Indonesia and China are in a new phase of testing each other’s bottom line, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Competing ship movements will continue "for a while", he believes. "In recent years, I think both China and Indonesia came to the realization that the Natuna Island EEZ and nine-dash line, they do intersect one another, so they are literally testing the water now," Oh said.
Friction between the two sides dates back to 2016, when Indonesian President Joko Widodo showed signs of taking a harder line in the maritime dispute compared to his predecessors.
Authorities in his government have burned dozens of foreign fishing boats found in the EEZ. Vessels from the two countries entered a standoff in 2016 when Indonesian authorities tried to arrest a private boat operator but a Chinese coast guard vessel intervened. Indonesia said then that China had officially included waters near the Natuna Islands on a territorial map. Two years later Indonesia opened a Natuna Islands military base for up to 1,000 personnel.
China hinted this month that the two sides should talk.
"I can tell you that China and Indonesia have always carried out dialogue through diplomatic channels," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing January 7 as quoted on his ministry’s website. "We believe the Indonesian side also can see the issue from the vantage of bilateral relations and regional stability and resolve disputes with the Chinese side."
China often offers aid and investment to ease rifts with smaller countries.
Before Widodo took office in 2014, Indonesia normally said little about Chinese vessels near the Natuna Islands. China had invested in Indonesia’s infrastructure and bought oil from its palm plantations. Indonesian officials today have been cautious on any deals to accept infrastructure aid under Beijing’s $1 trillion, Belt and Road Initiative aimed at building trade routes across Asia.
Indonesia indicated it would assert its maritime claim without dialogue.
Maritime and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo made a working visit January 15 to the Natuna Islands "in order to follow up President Jokowi's instructions that Indonesian sovereignty is not negotiable," according to a statement on the ministry’s website. Jokowi is the president's nickname.
Indonesia protested diplomatically over the December ship movements and China replied that it had rights to use those waters.
Jakarta might look to Australia, Japan and the United States for help such as "capacity building", Nagy said. Eventually, he said, nothing will be settled. That way China can show it’s not being influenced by smaller countries and Indonesian people won’t see their government as a pushover, he said.
China would avoid any moves that might incite anger among Indonesian people, the source of deadly anti-Chinese riots in 1998, Nagy added.