International relations, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

6 August 2020

If it can harness collective angst in Southeast Asia about China’s actions in the South China Sea, Indonesia is likely to benefit from a heightened American presence in the region, Aristyo Darmawan writes.

‘The friend of your enemy is your enemy; just as the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is a well-known adage, and it can pretty much represent current conditions in the South China Sea, where all the Southeast Asian states claiming their sovereignty are facing a common threat from China in the dispute.

In practice, however, it is not just these claimant states which are under threat. Many other countries, including the United States, want to protect the interests of freedom of navigation and security there, making the South China Sea a much larger concern than just a dispute among neighbours.

On 13 July 2020, the United States Department of States released a press statement on the country’s Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea signed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The brief document reiterates past policy on the South China Sea dispute, which is to maintain the ‘freedom of navigation’ and ‘peace and security in the region’.

Some readings of the document argue that the United States is looking to embrace Southeast Asian countries with claims in the Sea, wanting to engage with any states that have an interest in the dispute with the goal of making China appear as a common threat in the dispute.

Indeed, the document opts to openly quote China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who said: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”

The document’s release could be a signal that the United States is taking the dispute more seriously and might increase their presence in the disputed area. But what does this mean for Indonesia, and what does it stand to gain from a more assertive American presence in the region?

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The brief document opens by invoking the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, an emerging attempt to build American cooperation with the countries of the region under four main pillars: economic prosperity, good governance, security, and human capital.

This week, the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Indonesia’s Foreign Minister to reiterate American support for Southeast Asian states upholding their sovereign rights and interests under international law in the South China Sea.

In responding to Secretary of State Pompeo’s call, Indonesia reiterated its neutral position, and said that its government’s top priority is the COVID-19 situation, mentioning assistance with ventilators and pursuing a vaccine. Importantly though, Indonesia did confirm that their interests are to keep peace and security in the region.

Rather than standing in clear opposition to or support of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific idea, Indonesia has taken the lead in bringing ASEAN into the Indo-Pacific conversation, emphasising ASEAN’s centrality to ensuring competition between the US and China in the region doesn’t boil over into confrontation. It does so in the hope this can become a common vision for ASEAN member states as their role in the Indo-Pacific evolves.

Indonesia has long been regarded as an honest broker in the dispute in the South China Sea, giving it legitimacy to make this kind of push. Importantly, Indonesia is not a claimant to any islands or maritime features in the South China, the objects of most controversy.

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Indonesia, while much closer to the action, essentially shares with the United States simply the goal of maintaining peace and security in the region, as well as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, rather than the material gain of territory or other strategic goals.

However, Indonesia’s status as a non-claimant in the dispute has not made the country free from escalation with China. Since 2016, the illegal nine-dash line has caused major tension between Indonesia and China, and many Chinese fishing vessels come to Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea to fish illegally. As it is clearly a legitimate stakeholder in the dispute, but its motives less potentially self-serving or fraught with tension, Indonesia could occupy a uniquely useful position in helping parties to negotiate, one which could be buttressed by increased American presence in the region given their common goals.

Clearly, it is in Indonesia’s interest to assure all countries in the dispute including China uphold international law, and, for the most part, this lines up well with the concerns raised in the United States’ press release.

There are, of course, potential downsides to this. Many argue it’s crucial that Indonesia’s foreign policy should not clearly ‘pick a side’ between China or the United States, and aligning its goals with American ones in the South China Sea could create this impression.

However, Indonesia’s free and active foreign policy in other areas will keep it in a neutral position, especially given that Indonesia is very unlikely to cooperate with the United States in a way that it thinks could further escalate in its tensions with China.

It is helped in this by being part of a group of countries with disputes in the area. Earlier this year, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia invoked the South China Sea arbitration ruling in their submission to the United Nations following Malaysia’s proposal of the extended continental shelf, which was then followed by the United States.

That this was a large group of nations, and not Indonesia alone, could protect it from the ire of Chinese diplomats for ‘picking a side’.

Indeed, as it is in Indonesia, it is in the interest of all claimant states in the dispute to assure China feels respected in the dispute, along with, of course, that it is acting according to international law.

If Indonesia continues to act together with its partners in the region, a stronger United States presence in the South China Sea is likely to be able to put pressure on China to behave according to international law. Importantly, it can do this without endangering the relationships of Southeast Asian nations with their rising northern neighbour.

Even though Indonesia will clearly not be involved in any efforts made by the United States military in the South China Sea, it is likely to benefit from a heightened American presence in the region.

This is because this increase in pressure, while not directly benefiting these countries claims, can be combined with collective diplomatic action, preventing China from acting as a regional superpower that dominates the South China Sea in violation of international law.

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