China-Indonesia South China Sea incident likely a blip in a long-term trend of mutual adjustment

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Chinese Premier Xi JinpingPhoto: Cabinet Secretary of Indonesia

The recent flare-up of tensions between Indonesia and China over fishing in the south-central South China Sea will not be the turning point in ASEAN-China relations many predict.

By Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China 

In late December, 63 Chinese fishing boats escorted by 3 Coast Guard vessels entered Indonesia’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. Indonesia protested vehemently and sent warships and jet fighters to the Natuna Islands, prompting a standoff between the two nations.  

Optimistic observers saw the incident as a critical turning point in ASEAN-China relations, predicting the emergence of a united front of Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and maybe even the Philippines in opposition to China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. But these predictions are hyperbole.

The ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat showed   little indication of uniting ASEAN against Chinese aggression

Last week’s ASEAN Foreign Ministers Retreat came and went. The most that ministers could muster regarding the South China Sea was an expression of concern over “land reclamations, recent developments and serious incidents, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” adding, “we further reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the overarching framework of legal order for the seas that must be respected by all countries.”

The statement from the ASEAN Chairperson, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, did not mention China by name. While this language may be progress in ASEAN-speak, it was hardly a robust expression of united opposition to China’s actions.

China’s economic clout prevents the emergence of an anti-China front

There are good reasons why an anti-China front within ASEAN is unlikely to materialize. These nations all want China’s continued economic largesse and each has its own political and military reasons for not wanting to fall out of favour with Beijing. China has exploited individual claimants’ economic and political needs to prevent such unity. Nevertheless, it may adjust its behaviour to at least partially and temporarily accommodate their concerns and deter US efforts to capitalize on the incidents.

Belt and Road international forum. Right to left: President of China Xi Jinping, President of Russia Vladimir Putin, President of Indonesia Joko Widodo.
Right to Left: President Xi Jinping of China, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Joko Widodo of Indonesia.
Photo: The Russian Presidential Press Office

Indonesia’s principal security concern is internal stability.  To maintain that stability it needs rapid economic growth, which depends in part on considerable Chinese economic assistance and investment.

Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi’s) government has maintained a careful balance between mollifying its nationalist anti-China elements and pushing China to leave its EEZ, at least temporarily.  Its response succeeded in preserving Indonesian national interests without endangering its Chinese investment or providing sufficient fodder for its domestic anti-Chinese nationalists.  Indonesia is unlikely to abandon this “delicate equilibrium” without a real significant Chinese threat to its sovereignty.

The Philippines will not join a united ASEAN front. It has made its own arrangement with Beijing. In exchange for promises of more Chinese investment, the Philippines is considering joint development of petroleum resources and talks are taking place between the heads of Coast Guard that could serve to reduce incidents and tensions at sea.

Beijing is deliberately vague when defending its actions in the South China Sea

 China’s public statements defending its actions in the South China Sea are maddeningly nebulous. Through deliberate ambiguity Beijing is giving itself the political space to adjust claims and change tack.  But now this has become counterproductive.  

The more erratic its behaviour in the South China Sea, and the more it pushes its discredited nine-dash line claim, the more it frightens rival claimants and confirms the US narrative that it seeks to change the international order. To tamp down rising tensions, China needs to do the hard thinking and the difficult domestic and international diplomacy that goes into explaining its claims and behaviour. 

Mixed Chinese signals offer claimants hope of a peaceful resolution

Beijing thinks long term. Its growing military and economic power will ensure that its presence in the South China Sea is long term. Claimant states may therefore conclude that it is in their long-term interest to help China save face with its strident domestic nationalists by giving it some form of shared access to fisheries and maybe even preferential commercial access to petroleum resources in their claimed EEZs.

US, Indian, Japanese and Filipino Ships in the South China Sea
US, Indian, Japanese and Philippine ships in the South China Sea.
Photo: Japan Maritime Self Defence Force

China’s recent policy adjustments have also given some signs of a willingness to seek a peaceful resolution. If China believes it has a valid claim to fish in Indonesia’s claimed EEZ, it showed restraint in its response to Indonesia’s protestations. Beijing admitted that its fishing vessels had taken fish from waters claimed by Indonesia and suggested its fishermen had pushed its government to allow them to do so. It has now ordered its fishing boats to at least temporarily leave Indonesia’s claimed EEZ.

Indonesia does not want this spat to escalate. Its response was subdued compared to a 2016 incident in which its Navy fired on a Chinese Coast Guard vessel. This time, although military vessels and aircraft were deployed to the area, their actions were restrained.

Navy Commander Fahar Tri Rahadi said: “We have to act in a precise and smart way.  We want to enforce the law without heating things up.”

Indonesia’s Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto emphasized that “China is a friendly nation”. Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan echoed Prabowo’s sentiment, saying “Indonesia and China should not quarrel.”

An agreement over fisheries could put the region on the path to stability

There are precedents of countries agreeing to limited access to fishing stocks within its EEZ.

Sourabh Gupta of the Institute for China -America Studies suggested in a recent op-ed that “in exchange for a nominal annual quota for its artisanal fishermen, the Chinese coast guard could cede its jurisdictional presence in Indonesian waters.  Reciprocal access to Chinese waters could also be sought.”

China has also been fishing in Malaysia’s EEZ and allegedly intimidating fishers and other nationally sanctioned actors there.  Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad expressed concerns that Malaysia is “too small to face up to China.”

“We watch what they are doing, we report what they are doing, but we do not chase them away or try to be aggressive,” he said.  China and Malaysia have agreed to a joint dialogue mechanism for the South China Sea.

There were similar flare-ups between the Philippines and China regarding illegal fishing, the intimidation of Filipino fishermen and Philippines-sanctioned petroleum exploration in its claimed EEZ.

China recognizes that its relationship with the Philippines regarding the South China Sea is being watched by the other claimants. Beijing seems to be trying to make it a “showcase of its peaceful dispute management and good neighbour policy.”

Vietnam has been very aggressive in its response to what it sees as China’s illegal incursions in its claimed maritime zones—although it has not recently used its navy or air force to confront China’s vessels. 

While Vietnam will use a tit-for-tat approach in defending its perceived rights, it is rightfully wary of pushing China too far. If it ‘internationalizes’ the dispute, it will alienate an enormous neighbour and economic partner with whom it must get along with into the indefinite future.

Within this context, the recent China-Indonesia incident is but a blip in the overall long-term mutual adjustment in China- Southeast Asian relations to accommodate China’s rise.  The anti-China bandwagoners hoping for it to be a turning point in uniting Southeast Asian opposition to China in the South China Sea will be disappointed.