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The Natuna Islands, China and the Jokowi Pushback


A unified rebuke from President Joko Widodo’s Cabinet in response to the latest in a series of incursions into Indonesian waters by Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels could mark a potential watershed moment in the disagreement between China and Indonesia over the Natuna Islands. As the frustrations build, the fractious responses of the past from within the government have finally given way to a united voice but Indonesia must now decide if it the best approach is to keep going it alone, independent of its ASEAN neighbours. Given the scope of the issue as a wider potential flashpoint, Indonesia must also not forget its regional role.


Since the beginning of his presidency, Joko Widodo – better known as Jokowi – has outlined his intention for a maritime-oriented foreign policy, which was spelt out in his Global Maritime Fulcrum vision. In the months leading up to these recent escalations, however, Jokowi’s actions have not matched his vision. A mixture of domestic politics and fractured foreign policy-related responses have, in the past, led to inconsistencies in the Indonesian responses to China’s South China Sea claims and subsequent maritime violations. While the Cabinet has disagreed over how to deliver a measured and unified response, China has slowly pushed its claim that the waters around the Natunas, where the Chinese fishermen have been caught, were “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”. China has used the same argument in its current South China Sea dispute with the Philippines. After the latest incident, Jokowi and his Cabinet announced from the warship KRI Imam Bonjol that further incursions will no longer be accepted.

Historically, Indonesia’s response has been grounded in not laying claim to any territory within China’s self-declared “nine-dash line”. The status quo, agreed upon by the two countries in the mid-1990s, has always been that Indonesia did not recognise the nine-dash line and that China respected Indonesian sovereignty over the waters surrounding the Natuna Islands. China has certainly never been a threat to Indonesia, but the recent clashes and Chinese incursions have called this arrangement into question. China’s ongoing bilateral dialogues with the other ASEAN members (rather than as a multinational group), means that Beijing could be well-placed to be able to take advantage of this disunity by slowly chipping away at the sovereign maritime borders between its nine-dash line and the waters surrounding the Natuna Islands. It may not be such a farfetched theory, either, as Evan Laksmana has described in his piece in the Washington Post in April of this year.

With Indonesia’s reluctance to openly side with major powers like the United States to hedge against China, the return to the table of ASEAN can play an important role in defusing tensions and achieving clarification. Indonesia has traditionally played the role of the honest broker when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. ASEAN is the cornerstone of Indonesia’s foreign policy and Jakarta must remember the benefits of continuing to act as a neutral party that can help to prevent the South China Sea flashpoint from boiling over, despite recent events. Even if Indonesia cannot formulate a fully effective response in its own right, going back to its role as the ASEAN mediator could help to overcome that problem. It may not solve the balancing act that Jokowi must play in keeping a happy China as a vital economic partner, but it could at least restore some stability and help to prevent further clashes. The burden of responsibility should now lie with China to explain its “traditional fishing grounds” argument, which hopefully might be answered at the next ASEAN leaders’ summit, to be held in Laos in September.


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