That the extensive claim over the body of water within China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea does not correspond to international law should not be overlooked. Furthermore, China’s behavior in the South China Sea, namely the massive construction of artificial islands, is undeniably worrying.
However, there are some disagreements regarding the strategy of maintaining peace and stability in the region. Which is why this piece attempts to complement the arguments of Aaron Connelly, which appeared in The Jakarta Post on April 5, to provide readers with a better idea of the issue.
First, Connelly advocates Indonesia leading the region in voicing grave reservations about China’s behavior by stating clearly and repeatedly its expectation that “China will adhere to the arbitral tribunal’s award in Philippines v. China and end its use of the ‘nine-dash line’ to outline China’s claims.”
Moreover, Connelly doubts that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s move to assert Indonesia’s sovereign rights in the waters of Natuna Island in June last year will serve as a durable deterrent against China’s might. If the effect of Jokowi’s move in Natuna is considered limited, then how can one be sure that facing off against China is a better deterrence strategy?
Furthermore, urging China to abandon its nine-dash line claim sounds tactless. There is a better strategy than just provoking China’s anger. Dealing with China means understanding the country and adopting an open-minded attitude toward it.
The nine-dash line itself is a subject of contention in Beijing. There is no consensus among top policymakers there on the nine-dash line. Although originally the nine-dash line map drawn in 1947 signified the islands in the South China Sea, it was not meant to be a borderline.
In addition, China is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which acknowledges the international norm of “the land governs the sea.” Only a few of the land features in the South China Sea are subject to sovereignty claims, and based on this norm there is no way that China and Indonesia have overlapping maritime rights claims.
The other thing is China’s claim in the South China Sea is inseparable from domestic politics. As the regime needs to bolster its legitimacy, its behavior tends to be assertive. This knowledge helps us to understand that China is more than a black box.
All parties need to create a situation for China to comply with international law, namely UNCLOS, but rebuking it lacks prudence. The idea that China will eventually abide by international law if other states continually point their finger at it is an illusion. Resolution of the dispute in the South China Sea will be a long process, but only stability can pave the way for it.
Second, Connelly is admirably familiar with Indonesia’s independent and active (bebas aktif) foreign policy dictum. However, I perceive bebas aktif in a different way, especially in the context of the South China Sea.
Regarding active, Indonesia does not stand idly by in the midst of tension. Even though the country is not a claimant, it has been leading and hosting the workshop on managing potential conflict in the South China Sea since 1990. Among the regional states, Indonesia is a leader in championing UNCLOS. After the UNCLOS tribunal ruling in July 2016, Indonesia also issued a clear statement urging all parties to uphold international law.
In the South China Sea, Indonesia has no interest but stability, respect for international law, namely UNCLOS, and defending its territorial integrity. It is unlikely that Indonesia can serve these interests by adopting a confrontational attitude against China. Indonesia has no interest in irritating or appeasing any party in the South China Sea.
The leadership role that Indonesia plays has always been advancing dialogue among different stakeholders in the South China Sea, including China. This is the role that Indonesia needs to continue and enhance. No one should expect Indonesia to play a leading role in antagonizing any party in the South China Sea. Jakarta has its approach in supporting the UNCLOS tribunal ruling.
Amicable relations with China, as well as the United States and other claimants are Indonesia’s priorities. In particular, under the Jokowi administration Indonesia is enthusiastically attracting investment from foreign countries to upgrade its infrastructure. It is sensible that Jakarta will be very mindful in dealing with China, one of Indonesia’s biggest investors, but it does not mean compromising its stance on international law. This is the manifestation of the independence in bebas aktif. This stance, I believe, is also shared by the Philippines, China’s rival claimant in the South China Sea, as well as other countries in the region.
While sharing Connelly’s concern about China’s behavior in the South China Sea, it is unnecessary to take adversarial measures against China. Indonesia, as well as other countries in the region, should familiarize itself with the rising China and utilize this familiarity to maintain stability in the region and advance the respective national interests.
Resolution of the South China Sea dispute might not take place in our time, but we can set a foundation for it by maintaining stability, rather than undermining it.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.