Indonesia's China Strategy: 'Flexible Hedging'

April 20, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: IndonesiaChinaSouth China SeaASEANForeign Policy

Indonesia's China Strategy: 'Flexible Hedging'

Jakarta's South China Sea approach differs from its regional neighbors'.


Flexible Hedging at Play

Having a moderate economic stake, and a higher stake in Natuna, Indonesia understandably resorts to flexible hedging. This strategy is also in line with Indonesia’s long-adopted foreign policy principle of “free and active” (bebas aktif), which was introduced in 1948 and prescribed an independent path in the face of bipolar rivalry. Specifically, Indonesia employs three courses of action to address China’s rise and the growing U.S.-Chinese rivalry. First, instead of pursuing internal balancing, Indonesia resorts to soft balancing by trying to integrate China into ASEAN norms. Second, Jakarta maintains a high level of ambiguity with both Beijing and Washington. Third, Indonesia cooperates with China based on quick-gain pragmatism rather than long-term political and security commitments, as elaborated earlier.

Over the past years, Indonesia’s defense budget has surged from around $2 billion in 2001 to $7.3 billion in 2014, which constitutes 0.9 percent of GDP. Jokowi has pledged to increase the budget to 1.5 percent of GDP within the next four years, assuming that the country’s economy grows by at least seven percent. However, this should not be interpreted as an assertive move, but rather a necessity, since the current state of Indonesia’s military platforms requires a major technological upgrade. Iis Gindarsah of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote that 52 percent of the Indonesian military’s equipment has been around for more than thirty years. 59 percent of the navy’s arsenals are more than thirty years old, followed by the army (54 percent) and air force (38 percent).

Indonesia has been beefing up its military base in Natuna. Recently, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu stated that Indonesia plans to deploy U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to Natuna and refurbish the runway in Ranai Airport, while also deploying three frigates, a new radar system, drones, an army battalion, marines and air force special units. However, Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, argues that basing F-16s in the Natuna area would be a meaningless move, as it would not deter the overwhelming power of the Chinese military. By facing the obvious—that Indonesia’s military power is not likely to come close to that of China’s in the coming years—Jakarta resorts to soft balancing by integrating China into ASEAN norms. Jokowi has several times reasserted Indonesia’s aim of playing the role of honest broker in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Besides having a moderate internal balancing and playing an active role in soft balancing, Indonesia has also been maintaining an ambiguous stance toward both China and the United States. Related to China’s nine-dash line claim, which overlaps with parts of the Natuna EEZ, the Indonesian foreign ministry has been preserving the stance that it is not a claimant state, but has an interest in ensuring regional stability. Nevertheless, comments by several Indonesian officials have been confusing. For instance, General Moeldoko, former commander-in-chief of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, stated in the Wall Street Journal that Indonesia is “not a claimant in a dispute,” but continued that “Indonesia is dismayed, therefore, that China has included parts of the Natuna Islands within the nine-dash line, thus apparently claiming a segment of Indonesia's Riau Islands province as its territory.” In a less strong statement, Air Commodore Fahru Zaini, based at the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, stated publicly in March 2014 that “China has claimed Natuna waters as their territorial waters” and that “this dispute will have a large impact on the security of Natuna waters.”

Indonesia has also been ambiguous towards U.S. power projection in the region. In response to U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) last October—when the USS Lassen sailed within twelve nautical miles of China’s reclaimed islands built over the previously submerged Subi Reef—Jokowi called for all parties to “exercise restraint and refrain from taking actions that could undermine trust and confidence.” Jokowi did not directly refer to the USS Lassen’s move, but emphasized that Indonesia is neutral and supports freedom of navigation. His ministers, on the other hand, expressed a clearer stance on the issue. Responding to the operation, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan was quoted as saying, “We disagree, we don't like any power projection. Have you ever heard of power projection solving problems?” Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu stated that if the countries with claims in the South China Sea can calm tensions on their own, “there’s no need to involve other parties in resolving the dispute.” On the other hand, Jakarta refrained from openly condemning China’s land reclamation.

Admittedly, flexible hedging in Indonesia may not necessarily be a product of conscious, deliberate policymaking; it may also be the result of an absence of policy, and failure to reach consensus. Contradictory statements by Indonesian officials are likely to be a manifestation of the latter, but other actions, such as maintaining ambiguity over the status of its overlapping claim with China in the Natuna EEZ, seem much more deliberate. Regardless of the source of the strategy, Indonesia’s soft stance looks increasingly inadequate, particularly during the incident of March 20. Following the incident, China’s foreign ministry stated that the fishing boat was operating in “traditional Chinese fishing ground” and demanded that the detained Chinese fishermen be released. Luhut Pandjaitan and Marine Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti emphasized that Indonesia does not recognize traditional fishing areas. In the end, the Indonesian government chose to downplay the issue, arguing that the incident was seen more as a threat related to illegal fishing, unrelated to the South China Sea dispute.

While the country has adopted a bolder stance to combat illegal fishing through a policy of sinking unlawful vessels, it needs to be more consistent when it comes to Chinese boats. In early April, around two weeks after the latest incident, Indonesia sank twenty-three foreign vessels caught fishing illegally in its waters, but this only included ten Malaysian and thirteen Vietnamese vessels. Meanwhile, the owners of ten fishing vessels from China are appealing to related authorities not to sink their boats. While Indonesia sank a Chinese vessel last year, after much hesitation, the move is insignificant in number—Indonesia has sunk 174 boats so far.

While it is understandable that the Indonesian government is unwilling to jeopardize ties with Beijing over this incident, Jakarta needs to rethink the sustainability of its stance. Noting that the country can only conduct limited internal balancing, it may be also worthwhile for Indonesia to consider toning down its ambiguity toward Washington. Jakarta is likely to benefit from having more meaningful joint training with the U.S. military or by having a less ambiguous stance on U.S. FONOPS. Moreover, these actions are not likely to disrupt Indonesia’s economic relations with China, learning from other states that have both the United States as their security guarantor and China as a close economic partner. On the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia needs to exert more pressure in demanding China to clarify its position on waters off Natuna. Although the Chinese government has assured that it admits Indonesia’s rights over the Natuna Islands, it did not give a clear stance over the Natuna EEZ, where at least three publicly known incidents between Indonesian and Chinese vessels had been recorded. In the latest incident, not only did China fail to deliver an apology and claimed that they were fishing in a traditional fishing ground, they also demanded that the detained fishermen be released. If such an incident reoccurs, Indonesia needs to consider whether it can keep claiming that it does not have a clash of interests with China. Responding to such an incident with a soft stance will raise questions about Indonesia’s leadership in ASEAN and the sanctity of UNCLOS, and will create doubts about what Indonesia is willing to do to protect its sovereignty.

The great Ali Alatas, a former Indonesian foreign minister, aptly put that “the repetition of an untruth will ultimately make it appear as truth.” While this statement has many merits, the Indonesian government needs to consider that continuing to downplay the truth may pose even greater risks.

Tiola Javadi is a Research Associate with the Indonesia Programme at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Image: Wikimedia Commons