Last week in The Strategist Benjamin Schreer offered a stark view of the forces shaping Indonesia’s future strategic choices. Schreer argues that Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea might (or will?) eventually encroach on Indonesia’s maritime interests, pushing it to modify or altogether discard its traditional non-aligned posture and side with the US against China. I think there are good reasons to be sceptical of this picture.
Firstly, there’s little evidence that Indonesia feels as threatened by China as is sometimes assumed in Australia. Secondly, Indonesia would be unlikely to respond to a ‘China threat’ in the way that Schreer suggests. I’ll go through these points in turn.
Schreer argues that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea potentially encroach upon Indonesia’s ‘maritime interests’, forcing Indonesia to look upon China as a potential threat. He cites Scott Bentley’s recent Strategist post which details a 26 March incident where a Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel harassed an Indonesian vessel in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone off the Natuna Islands. Bentley argues that such incidents in Indonesian waters fit a wider pattern of Chinese behaviour, whereby its ‘enforcement of its expansive claims’ is deliberately designed to alter the status quo. Beijing, for its part, insists that its actions in the South China Sea have been reactive, and that it remains committed to diplomatic solutions to its territorial disputes.
As Sarah Raine and Christian Le Mière point out in their Adelphi Paper, Regional Disorder: The South China Sea Disputes, the often unacknowledged context of these disputes is one of desperate fisherman traversing the invisible national boundaries of the South China Sea in search of declining fish stock. These fishermen, and the region’s maritime law enforcement agencies, are key determinants of the frequency and intensity of these incidents. Observers can infer Beijing’s larger strategic intention from these incidents if they wish. But China’s maritime law enforcement agencies operate with a degree of autonomy from the central government, and their operations might not always reflect Beijing’s priorities.
Should this situation comfort anyone? No. But this messy reality informs how Indonesia interprets these episodes. By cultivating a brittle nationalism, the Chinese leadership has stitched itself into a policy straightjacket regarding their territorial disputes –diplomats can only walk back so far from the ‘nine-dash line’ claims in public before risking a public backlash. But China has proven adept at providing reassurance to Indonesia following such incidents before, and will probably do so again.
Rather than being an omen of unavoidable conflict, these incidents can be managed by quiet diplomacy. For the time being Indonesia is gauging China’s intentions and hedging its bets by building defence ties in the region. But it isn’t inevitable that these relatively trivial incidents involving maritime law enforcement agencies will come to define the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and China.
Secondly, I think Indonesia’s non-alignment tradition will continue to exert a large influence on the way Indonesia positions itself in the Asian Century. Part of the strength of Indonesia’s bebas aktif (free and active) foreign policy tenet is that it has little concrete content, allowing it to be frequently redefined according to domestic and international circumstances. Despite its changing content, however, bebas aktif denotes a consistent and distinct style. As Indonesia scholar Franklin Weinstein put it, bebas aktif implies that Indonesia should remain aloof from competing blocs, but shouldn’t be a neutral or passive voice in world affairs. This approach is rooted in the view that Indonesian national interests are distinct from those of the major powers, an attitude derived from the historical experience of Indonesia’s anti-colonial struggles.
Indonesia is reaching out to many countries, including the US, out of a concern about China. But there’s a difference between supporting an American forward presence in order to keep free-riding on it, and ‘siding’ with the US against China. Schreer points out that Indonesia’s long term strategic interests align much more closely with a bloc consisting of Australia, Japan and the US, than with China. This may be true, but given many other factors; Indonesia’s location, its economic integration with China, and the uncertainty surrounding the sustainability of America’s forward presence, Indonesia’s interests are still quite mixed. The combined effects of Indonesia’s strategic culture, and what Rod Lyon calls the ‘anti-coagulant’ forces of the Asian system, militate against Indonesia’s induction into bloc built around sustained antagonism towards China.
I’ve argued in a previous Strategist post that it is complacent to assume that a rising China will push Indonesia into Australian arms, and dangerous for a consensus to form around this assumption in Australia. For Indonesia’s current hedging strategy to shift toward overt alignment with the US against China would require some truly inept diplomacy from Beijing, and some dramatic changes in Indonesia’s domestic political landscape. Neither of these things can be taken for granted. Indonesia’s future strategic choices are an important topic for speculation, but I think a prudent jury would still be out on this one.
Daniel Grant is the 2013 Robert O’Neill Scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. Image courtesy of the President of the Republic of Indonesia official website.