How Indonesia stared down China in South China Sea



Although known to be fiercely nationalistic, Indonesia’s diminutive Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hardly looks the part of a “bad cop.” But that was the role she was apparently called on to play in Indonesia’s recent stand-off with China in sovereign waters north of the Natuna Islands.

The hard line taken by Marsudi, chief political minister Mohamad Mahfud and even President Joko Widodo himself stood in contrast to the more conciliatory tone set by Maritime and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

But that, say insiders, ensured Jakarta kept bilateral relations on an even keel, despite widespread puzzlement over why Beijing decided now to test Indonesian’s willingness to defend the vast expanses of its northern Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ).

Government sources say China may have seized the opportunity that presented itself when naval reinforcements were dispatched to waters around northern Sulawesi to enforce a new ban on nickel ore shipments to China that went into effect on January 1.

In the weeks before the boom was lowered, huge amounts of ore were reportedly shipped from ports on Sulawesi’s east coast, where China already has a major nickel processing complex, still its biggest single Indonesian investment.

Widodo’s flying visit to the biggest of the Natuna islands on January 8 was followed within a day by the reported withdrawal of three Chinese Coast Guard patrol craft and scores of fishing boats which had intruded up to 100 kilometers into the EEZ.

But as late as January 11, Indonesia’s navy released a photograph showing a close encounter between a Chinese corvette, carrying the familiar registration number 5302, and the British-built corvette KRI Usman Harun in waters the Indonesians have renamed the North Natuna Sea.

Indonesia had dispatched the 1,900-ton patrol craft and seven other vessels and four F-16 fighter jets to the area, which Beijing claims is part of its “traditional fishing grounds” inside a vaguely-defined nine-dash line map that covers the disputed Spratly islands and much of the South China Sea.

A navy video showed an English-speaking Indonesian sailor, her head covered in a jilbab, repeatedly radioing demands to one of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels riding the swell several hundred meters away to “immediately leave the area.”

“I think China must have made the calculation that because it does enjoy good relations with Indonesia, it was not worth taking it any further, at least at this juncture,” says one regional analyst, seeking to explain the end to the mid-ocean standoff.

Although statements by the two “good cops,” retired army generals Panjaitan and Prabowo, seemed out of step with the administration, government sources say Panjaitan had the task of trying to smooth over troubled waters as the drama unfolded.

It was sometimes confusing. “We shouldn’t be too quick to say we are selling out our sovereignty,” said Panjaitan, within hours of Widodo asserting that it could not bargained. “Let me be clear that the EEZ has to do with the economy and not sovereignty. These are two different beasts.”

As it was, Panjaitan telephoned Chinese ambassador Xiao Qiang in an effort to take some of the heat out of the standoff, telling him that during a visit to Beijing three years earlier he had reminded officials that Indonesia did not recognize the nine-dash line.

A foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing later drew attention to the “bigger picture of bilateral relations and regional stability,” calling on Indonesia to “properly resolve its differences with China and foster a favorable atmosphere.”

For foreign minister Marsudi, that was the problem. As far as she and her policy advisers were concerned, there was nothing to talk about. It was simply up to China, she said, to comply with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Panjaitan is the point man on Chinese investment, including the US$6 billion Jakarta-Bandung fast rail project – the first of several planned ventures that fall under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but which do not involve Indonesian government funding.

Days after his Natuna visit, Widodo answered critics that Indonesia has been too reliant on China by signing a $6.8 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates on a range of infrastructure and human development projects Panjaitan had worked on since last July.

Prabowo, for his part, had just returned from a three-day visit to Beijing where he was wined and dined by the Chinese, met their senior-most military leaders and reportedly received reassurances of building Chinese drones under license in Indonesia.

The former opposition leader has performed enthusiastically since he was surprisingly given the defense job in the wake of last year’s acrimonious presidential elections. Friends say he feels he’s doing something useful and in an environment he enjoys and understands.

Prabowo, himself a former army man, has made it clear the navy and the air force are his priorities as defense minister. Two months ago, he signed a $750 million deal with Denmark for two frigates to more effectively patrol the country’s EEZ, with an option to build four more at Surabaya’s PT PAL shipyard.

Indonesia’s two new Dutch-built Sigma-class frigates and four 1960s-era Speijk-class frigates have a range of only 8-9,000 kilometers, not much more than the navy’s fleet of about 20 smaller corvettes, some bought from the former East German navy which are nearing the end of their life.

Indonesia also must make a decision on whether to go ahead with the delivery of 11 Russian-built Su-35 fighters, risking the possible wrath of US President Donald Trump. Awkwardly for the Indonesians, the deal has already been signed and Russian President Vladmir Putin is due to visit Jakarta this year.

Last November, the Indonesian Air Force confirmed an earlier Asia Times report that it planned to purchase 32 new F-16 Viper jets, to go with 33 F-16s already in its inventory, in what appeared to be an effort to avoid any possible US sanctions.

Washington sources had speculated that the Indonesians were seeking to protect their Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) access, as well as to ward off possible US congressional retaliation against friendly countries that have been buying Russian military hardware.

Although there were two isolated incidents with Chinese Coast Guard vessels in 2013 and 2016, the latest confrontation is the first time China has sought to enforce its nine-dash line outside the Spratlys in the furthest reaches of the South China Sea.

Naval analysts say Indonesia can expect further incursions to test its responses, with Hainan-based Chinese fishing fleets and their Coast Guard and militia escorts following a pre-planned pattern that does not always involve just fishing.

“They’ll be back and forth, particularly when the fish are running as they are now,” says one analyst, who tracks the fleets. “But Indonesia’s navy officers are very serious about the sovereignty issue.

They had a plan and they did start to implement it.”

Observers noted that two Chinese corvettes, which at one point appeared to be headed for the Natunas from China’s militarized Fiery Cross Reef last week to reinforce the three Coast Guard vessels already there, did not cross into Indonesia’s EEZ.

Feints are common. Last June, in what is known as “spoofing,” a suspected Chinese patrol craft was detected only 40 kilometers off the coast of Papua, further to the east than the Chinese Coast Guard had ever been.

It was later surmised that the Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder had been placed on a different ship.