AT the very start of the new year and the new decade on Jan. 1, 2020, the government of Indonesia made a declaration that has profound and far-reaching implications for the festering disputes between China and its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) neighbors over China’s extravagant claims in the South China Sea.
Indonesia said on Wednesday it rejected China’s claims over a disputed part of the South China Sea as “having no legal basis.” This came after it lodged a protest two days earlier with Beijing over the presence of a Chinese coastguard vessel in its territorial waters.
The Chinese vessel trespassed into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off the coast of the northern islands of Natuna. This impelled leading Indonesian officials to issue a “strong protest” to Beijing. The Indonesian foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta.
In response to the protest, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declared that China had sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their waters, and that both China and Indonesia have “normal” fishing activities there.
This is news for the Philippines and other active claimants of the Spratlys, and other parts of the disputed sea region, namely Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. This sovereignty claim will surely ignite again furious protests against China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea.
Indonesia’s entry into the picture is significant and important. Normally, Indonesia and China do not step on each other’s toes in matters concerning the South China Sea.
China does not claim Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which many do not regard as part of the South China Sea region. The two countries bicker chiefly about the rights of Chinese fishermen to fish in the waters there.
Unlike in the Spratlys, where China has built artificial islands and fortifications, it has not stepped into Indonesia’s special economic zone.
In the current dust-up, Indonesia’s foreign ministry sharply rebuked China and called on it to explain the “legal basis and clear borders” regarding its claims to an exclusive economic zone, as based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
The Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry said: “China’s claims to the exclusive economic zone on the grounds that its fishermen have long been active there… have no legal basis and have never been recognized by the Unclos 1982.”
Jakarta also noted that China’s territorial claims had been refuted during China’s legal defeat in the suit that the Philippines filed in 2016 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over disputed South China Sea claims.
Indonesia has no claim over the Spratly Islands, which lie to the northeast of the Natuna Islands. The Indonesian foreign ministry reiterated its position that the country is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea and that it has no overlapping jurisdiction with China.
Jakarta has mainly clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, as it detained Chinese fishermen and expanded its military presence in the area.
Indonesia is not alone in voicing its concern, Malaysia also publicly expressed concern about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. It has protested Chinese intrusion into Malaysia’s claims in the area.
In the past, Malaysia sought to secure its interests in the South China Sea quietly without undermining its overall relationship with Beijing by adopting a “playing it safe” approach.
But it has become increasingly alarmed and has recalibrated its policy. In recent years, Malaysia lodged diplomatic protests directly with Beijing while also shaping debate on the South China Sea within Asean, increasing its military capabilities and strengthening ties with other countries, including the United States.
Taken together, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines represent the sizable and formidable Malay bloc in Asean. Add to them Brunei, which is also an South China Sea claimant, and you have all Malay states asserting their rights in the region.
Philippine statesmanship and diplomacy should increasingly factor in the Malay factor in its strategies and decision-making. It is right to recall Malay culture and traditions as we dance with Sinitic culture.