Escalating tensions in South China Sea a real test for Indonesia and ASEAN unity

Escalating tensions in South China Sea a real test for Indonesia and ASEAN unity

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Amid allegations reported by Chinese media that Indonesia has been playing ‘little tricks’ by not recognising China’s claim over the South China Sea, Indonesia — as a non-claimant country over the contested South China Sea — can play a role in reducing tensions in the energy-rich area between the world economic powerhouse and its rival the United States.

“Indonesia never has a border dispute with China over the South China Sea, so there are no small tricks whatsoever. Indonesia never recognizes China’s nine-dashed lines, which China claims unilaterally along the Natuna Waters,” international law expert Hikamahanto Juwana told TOC on Monday (10 August).

In an op-ed published on China state-owned media platform The Global Times on 4 August, Cheng Hanping slammed Indonesia for allegedly being up to “little tricks on South China Sea issues”.

The senior research fellow and professor at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University opined that China has never laid claim over the Natuna Islands, and asserted that both countries have overlapping claims only over the exclusive economic zone (ZEE) near the area.

Indonesia, however, expelled Chinese fishers from the Natuna Waters earlier this year.

The country’s permanent mission to the United Nations (U.N.) sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in May, saying that China’s claim in the strategic water lacks a legal basis as stipulated in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi reiterated that Indonesia’s stance over its sovereignty in the ZEE in the South China Sea has been steady and consistent, in line with the 1982 UNCLOS.

The archipelagic nation’s position on the ZEE was backed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 2016, in which China’s maritime claim was rejected.

Other ASEAN Member States’ territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea

Vietnam has claimed sovereignty over Paracel and Spratly Island, backed with historical documents to prove it. In May 2003, the Vietnam Foreign Ministry issued a declaration announcing the country’s claim over the contested area.

Consequently, China’s gas survey ships’ activities in the Vietnam-claimed territory last year triggered Hanoi’s anger.

Just two weeks ago, Vietnam signed a partnership with Japan to build six sea patrol ships to boost the former’s maritime capacity.

The Philippines claimed its sovereignty over the northeastern part of the Spratly Islands — known locally as Kalayaan — and the Scarborough Shoal. The tension between the Philippines and China rose in 2012 when the Philippines Navy detained Chinese fishers near Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

A year later, the Philippines filed a legal complaint to annul China’s claim over the nine-dash lines — the imaginary lines China unilaterally uses to lay claims on the South China Sea, based on several ancient records from Chinese dynasties.

Three years later, the ICJ ruling announced the Philippines has full sovereignty in the West Philippines Sea.

Malaysia claims a section in the South China Sea near northern Kalimantan, which covers at least 12 sea features in the Spratly Islands, including those claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.

In 2018, China’s coast guard ships spent 70 per cent of their time patrolling in the Malaysia-claimed areas.

Brunei Darussalam claims Louisa Reef, which is part of the Spratly claimed by China and Vietnam.

The tension escalates with the presence of the U.S. and Australia

The presence of the U.S. increases tensions in the strategic waters, raising concern that the row will lead to a military showdown between the U.S. and China as the world’s military powerhouses.

The U.S. and China conflict has been going for over a year involving several issues, from trade to technology. Despite being a non-claimant country, Australia — as one of Washington’s closest allies — has reversed its neutral stance over the South China Sea dispute by boldly facing China in the area.

Australia and China have seen a decline in mutual trust recently following Canberra’s call for an independent investigation over the origins of COVID-19, believed to be from China. Beijing responded by imposing an import ban and an additional duty on Australia’s wheat.

Will Indonesia unite ASEAN to face China in the South China Sea?

The 49th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Vientiane in Laos in July 2016 was wrapped up with a joint communiqué containing the bloc’s common ground on the South China Sea.

However, the meeting did not include the ICJ ruling passed a few days before the event which ruled out Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea — gaining praise from China.

“It is almost unlikely to expect ASEAN’s unity over the South China Sea. Cambodia and Laos are among China’s close friends, while Malaysia refuses to confront China openly and tends to refrain itself [from getting  involved in territorial disputes] despite having overlapping claims,” Mr Hikmahanto said.

According to Malaysian security expert Ramli Dollah, Malaysia is in a precarious position with regards to issuing any strong statement opposing China, given Malaysia is a relatively small power in the region and has to be careful before making an official statement.

“Malaysia claims and controls numerous reefs and islands in the South China Sea along with many other nations. However, it also faces a more powerful claimant, namely China, which recently is more assertive on their claim in this area,” Mr Ramli told Benar News.

The Philippines refused to participate in a joint military exercise in the South China Sea with the U.S, an effort to reduce tensions with Beijing.

Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said that confrontation is unlikely to happen due to the high cost resulting from any potential conflicts.

“I don’t think an all-out confrontation will take place. All the parties involved — the claimant states and the international community — recognize that the price is too high and the issues in the South China Sea do not warrant an actual physical confrontation,” Mr Ng said last year.

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