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China vs. Indonesia: Beijing Seen Alternating Pressure with Peacemaker Moves

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe delivers his opening speech for the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region's security officials, in Beijing, Oct. 21, 2019.
Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe delivers his opening speech for the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region's security officials, in Beijing, Oct. 21, 2019.

A Chinese coast guard ship passed through Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone earlier this month, until driven off by the Maritime Security Agency in Jakarta, just five days after China’s defense minister made a peace-building trip to the Southeast Asian country that’s normally, nominally friendly to Beijing.

But Indonesian officials are used to this soft-plus-hard approach by China and will play along by expelling Chinese vessels, though careful to avoid hot conflict along Beijing’s path to consecrate claims to a wider sea that includes a piece of Indonesia’s zone, experts say. The same dynamic is shaping China’s other testy maritime relations around Southeast Asia, they add.

“There’s no illusion that China intends to stop its behavior or not while it tries to make peace with the region,” said Evan Laksamana, senior researcher for the Center for Strategic and International Studies research group in Jakarta. Indonesian officials were unfazed by the coast guard vessel, he said. “I think rhetoric and behavior are what we have to look for.”

China is alternating displays of force with friendly dialogue around much of Southeast Asia, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. Those moves plus Indonesia’s expulsion of boats follow “game theory”, he said.

Vietnam and the Philippines have faced similar patterns from China over their own disputed sea claims, he added.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam contest Chinese claims to tiny features in the fishing-rich, energy-loaded South China Sea. China doesn’t claim Indonesian-held land but says it has rights to part of the economic zone extending 370 kilometers from Indonesia’s coast lines northwest of Borneo.

China calls about 90% of the sea its own, pointing to historic records as evidence despite protests around Southeast Asia. China has fended off that opposition by using its navy, coast guard and technological prowess to occupy key islets in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that stretches from the Indonesian zone north to Hong Kong.

Chinese landfilling of the islets, in some cases for military use, particularly upset Southeast Asian states over the past decade.

To defuse tension, Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe met with Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta September 8. Wei called the two countries “important neighbors” that day, part of a Southeast Asia trip Southeast that also covered Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

For China, the contested sea near Indonesia represents a new tract for fishing and possible undersea energy exploration, scholars say. The tract lies closest to Indonesia’s Natuna Island chain.

“That’s the last frontier they haven’t put their stakes on, Araral said. “They’re just pushing it the furthest that they can. If you look at it from the bigger picture, what they’re doing in Indonesia is pretty predictable in the bigger scheme of things.”

Shows of force allow China to negotiate from a position of strength with other governments and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc, Laksamana said.

China has the world’s third strongest armed forces, ahead of every Southeast Asian state. China and the bloc aim to sign a maritime code of conduct that would help prevent accidents in the contested sea, but sovereignty-related issues have held up a final deal despite dialogue since 2002.

Negotiating from strength could “even give China an upper hand in concluding a low-quality code of conduct,” the Jakarta-based analyst said.

Indonesians expect more Chinese activity in its economic zone where the coast guard vessel passed this month, scholars say.

Indonesian vessels have periodically expelled other Chinese ships in the disputed tract. In 2016 Indonesia contended with a string of incidents including a standoff with China during an effort to arrest people aboard Chinese fishing vessels.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry formally protested to China September 14 over the coast guard sighting a day earlier. The ministry rejected China's claims to the nearby waters.

While ship expulsions and diplomatic protests can proceed with little risk for Indonesia, analysts say, resisting more rigorous Chinese activity such as voyages closer to the Natuna Island shorelines would be riskier.

The Indonesian navy has acquired more weaponry over the years, while the coast guard vowed this month to boost patrols. But Indonesia’s coastal authorities must patrol 13,000 islands for terrorists, pirates and illegal migration as well as vessels from China.

“In general, we are not that worried, but we are concerned if this one happened again that our coast guard could not manage it properly because we lack capacity,” said Paramita Supamijoto, an international relations lecturer at Bina Nusantara University.