Expanding Chinese maritime interests in the Indian and Pacific oceans have emerged as a foreign policy priority across the region with Indonesia wanting and expected to play a key role as President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo settles in for his second term.
Two approaches are being pushed in diplomatic circles, but quietly, amid fears among smaller nations – like Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and even The Philippines – that opposing Beijing’s seaborne strategy would risk losing Chinese largesse and investment.
A trilateral relation between Indonesia, India and Australia is finding traction but is currently on ice with all three countries holding elections in the first half of this year. The second is the Indo-Pacific strategy, or Indo-Pac, an alliance between Indonesia,Australia, India, the US and Japan.
Kevin O’Rourke, an analyst with PT Reformasi Info Sastra, said the Indonesian economy remains Jokowi’s top priority and he is also reluctant to risk potential Chinese investment.
“However, he does seem to have a decent rapport with the current foreign minister Retno Marsudi, so she should continue, and she’s been a solid proponent of efforts to discuss the Indo-Pacific strategy, which has substantial support within elements of the foreign ministry,”he said.
“So I think that inclination for an Indo-Pacific strategy is going to continue in a second Widodo term.”
China launched its “string of pearls” strategy— a forward line of ports and trade routes – at the turn of the century, crossing international sea lanes in the South China Sea and claiming disputed islands and reefs. Some within the Exclusive Economic Zone of its neighbors.
It has ignored its own signature to the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and lost its claims to islands held by The Philippines at an international tribunal in The Hague.
Despite objections it pressed on.
On land, expansion was recast into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), described by the US as a“vanity project”,investing and lending heavily, then seizing assets when countries cannot afford to repay, known as debt traps.
Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean was forced to handover Hambantota Port. In the Pacific, Australia was forced to outbidChina for control of a debt-ladened port in Fiji, a traditional base in its US-Pacific alliance.
Mohan Malik, of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, said Australia and Indonesia were the “quintessential Indian-Pacific” nations,“… in the sense that both these countries are Pacific powers as much as they are Indian ocean powers.”
Beijing also fell foul of Jakarta when it claimed Natuna Island – long recognized as Indonesian sovereign territory – as part of its nine dash line delineating its claims in the South China Sea. In a bid to reassert its sovereignty Jakarta renamed that maritime zone the North Natuna Sea.
“Indonesia wants to be a global maritime fulcrum, how it can play that role is open to question, it’s a lofty concept, it’s identical to the Indo-Pacific construct,” Malik said.
Don Greenlees, a senior fellow with Australian National University, said Indonesia’s China policy remained “a work in progress” as it was difficult to predict what China would do next.
“They do see the South China Sea as potentially quite a dangerous flashpoint. They’ve got their territorial problems there with China, north of Natuna, and so it’s a bit of a balancing act and I think it’s the same balancing act, frankly, that everybody’s trying to grapple with,” he said.
Indian elections will not be completed until May 19,Australians go to the polls on May 18 while the next Indonesian government will not be sworn in until October 1.
Any further movement on building a trilateral relation between the three or formalizing and expanding the Indo-Pac strategy to include other countries is unlikely until later this year.
Both would mean increased military exercises, joint-policing and naval bases to counter Chinese influence from spreading southeast and southwest. Last year Indonesia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Australia and is expected to sign a similar pact with India soon.
Analysts said the trilateral relationship was the easier option because it was underpinned by common diplomatic sense and three regional powers with common interests.
However, the Indo-Pac strategy and efforts to coax support from other countries had been tainted by a heavy US influence and its trade war with China, which Malik said had made Indonesia reluctant to offer its support publicly.
“What is very off is the security orientation or connotation that this concept has acquired under the US-Trump administration; free and open Indo-Pacific, which is seen as putting countries on notice in terms of choosing sides,” Malik said. “Other countries are torn between China and the U.S.”
Ties that bind
In the meantime, all three countries are pushing ahead with their own strategies.
Indonesia and India are developing a 40 meter deep port at Sabang on the northern tip of Sumatra. India’s navy is building military facilities at Port Blair, including new airstrips, and is expanding its its reach across the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
In March, Australia launched the Indo-Pacific Endevour 19, a naval deployment with India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.
“That sends a very strong signal to China,” Malik said, adding that naval drills between Australia, India and Indonesia could become routine.“It would make sense for Indonesia to come out openly in favor of a Indo-Pacific concept.”
India has objected to BRI saying, in part, it violates its sovereignty because of developments built in Pakistan controlled areas that India regards as its own.
It was also a pointed no show at this weekend’s second BRI Forum in Beijing, which attracted delegates from 150 nations, including 36 leaders. Indonesia was the only country from Southeast Asia not to send its head of state while Australia mustered a mid-level delegation.