A Jakarta think-tank intellectual was once asked whether Beijing listens when Jakarta speaks. He responded emphatically: ‘Oh yes! The problem is we don’t say enough’.
In the post-authoritarian era, Indonesian officials, like many of their Southeast Asian counterparts, have tended to self-censor when it comes to China, avoiding public criticism while benefiting from considerable Chinese largesse. This is what makes recent public comments by senior Indonesian military officers about the vulnerability of Indonesia’s South China Sea-located Natuna Islands so interesting.
Following a February 2014 trip to Beijing, for example, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) commander General Moeldoko signaled enhanced defence measures for the Natuna Islands. ‘Since Natuna is strategically located, the increase of its forces at sea, on the ground, and in the air is necessary to anticipate any instability in the South China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia and the TNI’, he explained.
Then in March, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, based at Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, publicly stated that ‘China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters. This dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters’.
In June 2013, Commodore Amarullah Octavian was even more frank. In announcing that Indonesia would host ‘Exercise Komodo’ he explained that ‘the exercise will focus on naval capabilities in disaster relief, but we will also pay attention to the aggressive stance of the Chinese government by entering the Natuna area’.
Unsurprisingly, such candid public comments by senior Indonesian military officers did not go unnoticed in the Indonesian press and scholarly community.
There was a particularly interesting exchange on this issue between Indonesian security analyst Evan Laksmana and American academic Anne Marie Murphy. Murphy had interpreted the TNI comments as evidence of a significant policy shift by Indonesia and described the ‘public declaration’ of a maritime conflict with China as a ‘potential game changer’. ‘The strategic ambiguity that has allowed Indonesia to position itself as a mediator between China and its ASEAN neighbours has been lost’, she concluded.