Dino Patti Djalal: Indonesia wants restraint in the South China Sea
29 Jul 2020|

Indonesia appreciated being comprehensively briefed on Australia’s recent defence strategic update before it was announced, says seasoned diplomat and politician Dr Dino Patti Djalal.

The former deputy foreign minister, who now heads the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia think tank, told ASPI’s online ‘Strategic Vision 2020’ conference that the world was living in ‘a hot peace environment’ with relations among the major powers deteriorating and many potential flashpoints.

Interviewed by journalist Stan Grant, Djalal said he was very pleased that Australia explained its plans to Indonesia. He said that contrasted dramatically with the 2011 announcement that Australia would host US marines in Darwin.

He remembered well being with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Hawaii when journalists asked them what they thought about the US sending marines to Darwin. ‘He looked at me and I had the stupidest look on my face. We did not know about this. We were not told and consulted by the Americans or by the Australians. That was a big lesson.’

Djalal said it was important that the update contained no suggestion that Indonesia was a threat to Australia, ‘Because that was always there in the past. Somehow, Indonesia is seen as some kind of a threat.

‘But I think this document makes it clear that Indonesia is a strong partner for Australia in addressing security issues in the region.’

He said Indonesians were not comfortable seeing defence spending rising around them, as with record levels in the US. ‘We don’t like to see hot peace combined with some sense of an arms race.’

Indonesia favoured soft power and diplomacy. Australia and Indonesia could cooperate on peacekeeping, Djalal said.

Indonesia did not intend to spend more on defence, especially with the pandemic. ‘We are going to need a lot of resources for economic and cultural development’, Djalal said.

Military development had to be accompanied by confidence-building measures, and that was not happening.

On Indonesians’ view of Australia, Djalal observed, ‘I’m out of government, so I can say this, but there’s still some wild conspiracy theories about Australia within the Indonesian body politic.’ Many Indonesians blamed Australia for promoting East Timorese independence. Some felt the deployment of US troops to Darwin was part of some bad strategic design towards Indonesia ‘which obviously is not the case’.

Indonesians loved conspiracy theories, Djalal said. ‘There’s still a bit of that, but the important thing is that the overall structure of the relationship now has changed. The feel between the leaders, the relations between the institutions, the degree of strategic trust between the two sides, this is unlike anything that we have ever seen before in terms of Indonesia–Australia relations.’

That could be affected by issues, he said, as when he discovered via Wikileaks that he and his president were among Indonesians being spied on by an Australian security agency.

At the same time, many Australians were unaware that Indonesia was a thriving democracy.

Now, he said, there was a ‘psyche of partnership’ between Indonesia and Australia. Of all Western countries, Australia knew Indonesia best and had the most invested in having good relations with it.

Indonesian and Australian diplomats worked well together, Djalal said. When he was ambassador to Washington, his best partner was Kim Beazley. ‘Indonesian and Australian diplomats always call each other. Always go to coffees and discuss issues and how to work together.’

This year, Djalal was asked which country Indonesia had grown closer to in the past five years and he responded, ‘China.’

He explained that while relations between Indonesia and China ‘froze’ decades ago, they had improved to the point where China was now Indonesia’s largest trading partner and export market. ‘Chinese diplomats are very active in Indonesia’, he said. Many Chinese tourists visited Indonesia each year and there were now more Indonesian students studying in China than in the US. ‘The number one is still Australia, but China is second after that.’

Ministerial consultations were routine and frequent, Dijlal said. ‘So, I think relations with China have dramatically and significantly intensified, particularly in the last five years or so.’

Dijlal said the driver was economic. China moved very fast on trade, he said. ‘Two decades ago, they were nowhere to be seen, but now they’re one of the biggest investors in Indonesia.’

The relationship was multidimensional and had varying levels of intensity. ‘But if you look at the metrics economically and politically, these are two different things. The Chinese have some difficulties in terms of public reception in Indonesia—the Chinese workers, for example. And then politically on the Natuna issue.’

Indonesia has named the area around its Natuna Islands the ‘North Natuna Sea’. This body of water embraces the southernmost part of the South China Sea and lies within the ‘nine-dash line’ which Beijing says marks out its territory.

Djalal said China’s claim over those waters had raised serious discomfort in Indonesia.

Grant noted that an Indonesian naval vessel had, in 2016, fired warning shots to drive Chinese fishing vessels away from the islands. Djalal responded that this was something new in the last five years. ‘But before that, the Chinese tended to be shy’, he said.

‘But then after 2014 onward, the Chinese seem to be pushing it to our face that, “Hey, we got some claims, they may be overlapping within the nine-dash line”.

‘Our position is very clear that there’s no need to negotiate. There’s no dispute because we don’t recognise the Chinese claims. We don’t recognise the nine-dash line.’

Indonesia did not believe China’s claims were consistent with international law. ‘The one thing that’s different is that the Chinese seem to be more assertive and pushing that issue into our diplomatic relations, but we’re holding tight to our position that we do not recognise that there is an overlap’, Djalal said.

‘With regard also to the rest of the South China Sea, there is a pathway to its resolution or its management through the discussion on the ASEAN–China code of conduct, which is now going on.

‘We don’t support any claims by the claimants and we want peaceful negotiations among them. We want them to exercise self-restraint, not just China but also the other ASEAN claimants, and we want to finalise the code of conduct negotiations.’

Djalal said Indonesia, like other ASEAN nations, had a lot invested in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea because its national territorial structure was embedded in that convention.

‘But this has added urgency now that you have more maritime disputes. And with China, again, pushing the nine-dash line strongly and more assertive behaviour, there needs to be a basis of understanding on how to move forward with this.’

The UN convention provided very clear rules and China had agreed to them, so that was the best basis on which to move forward, he said.

Asked about rising tension between the US and China, Djalal responded that as a Southeast Asian, he was not comfortable with Washington’s tone on China. President Donald Trump was very harsh on China. ‘We have our differences with China, but I think the tone from the US, I’m not comfortable with. I think many Southeast Asians find it disagreeable as well, even though we don’t say it out loud.’

Australia’s position on China had also become harsher, Djalal said. ‘I think there’s a tendency at China bashing in certain quarters in the Western world. This is qualitatively different from how Southeast Asians see China. So, I think that needs to be recognised.’ He said greater finesse was needed in dealing with China.

Djalal said that if Joe Biden won the US election, he would be tough on China but his administration would not play such a strong blame game and its approach would be more sophisticated.