Home / Articles / The Next Front: China and Indonesia in the South China Sea
“There is no territorial dispute between Indonesia and China,” has been an often-heard refrain from Indonesia’s leaders for decades. But reality belies the statement. While there may be no land dispute between China and Indonesia, there certainly is a maritime one. That was made clear in December 2019 when a Chinese coast guard vessel escorted several Chinese fishing boats into waters that are within China’s self-proclaimed “nine-dash line,” but are also inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea.
The latest incident follows a pattern of behavior by Chinese vessels in maritime areas which China disputes with Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Acutely conscious of that pattern, Jakarta promptly summoned China’s ambassador and issued a formal diplomatic protest. In the meantime, the Indonesian military deployed ten naval ships to the area and four F-16 fighters to Natuna Island. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo even flew to the island to survey the situation. For the first week of 2020, Chinese coast guard vessels and Indonesian naval ships were locked in a standoff, reminiscent of earlier ones between Chinese forces and those of the Philippines and Vietnam over the last decade.
Slicing More Salami
At stake for Indonesia are more than fisheries in the South China Sea and the livelihoods they provide for Indonesian fishermen. The waters north of the Natuna Islands are also critical to the future of Indonesia’s energy industry. The country’s biggest untapped natural gas field, called East Natuna and contains some 46 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas resources, is located there.
Traditionally, Indonesia has tried to sidestep its maritime row with China. Emphasizing the lack of a “territorial dispute” between the two countries, Indonesia has frequently offered to act as a neutral mediator between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in their perennial dispute over the Spratly Islands. For its part, Beijing has been content to gloss over its overlapping maritime claims with Jakarta, especially as long as China could do little about it. The waters disputed between China and Indonesia are 1,500 km from the nearest undisputed Chinese territory; and China, until recently, has been unable to enforce its claims over such distances.
But today, China’s burgeoning maritime forces and newly built military facilities in the Spratly archipelago have greatly expanded its reach in the South China Sea. As a result, China seems to have resumed its southward push through the South China Sea. Using “salami tactics”—actions designed to incrementally overcome opposition—China has already put the Philippines on its heels and seems on its way to doing the same to Malaysia and, perhaps, even Vietnam. This time, the target was Indonesia. No doubt, Beijing eventually hopes to achieve de facto control over all the waters within its “nine-dash line” claim.
China’s goal is hardly a surprise to Indonesian leaders. They have long been wary of China. It is an ingrained suspicion born from China’s one-time revolutionary foreign policy that supported communist insurgencies across Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia. While those concerns subsided with the end of the Cold War, new ones have taken their place as Indonesia watched an economically and militarily rising China brush aside the maritime and territorial claims of its Southeast Asian neighbors over the last decade.
For much of the 1990s and 2000s, Indonesia dealt with China’s South China Sea activities in much the same way most other Southeast Asian countries did: with discrete dialogue. But as China advanced further south, Indonesia began taking a firmer line. In 2010, it put a formal stake in the ground when it submitted a letter to the United Nations contesting the legal basis for China’s “nine-dash line.” Then, in 2014, Indonesia’s top military officer accused China of including the waters near the Natuna Islands in its self-proclaimed line and cautioned that China’s military power could destabilize Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the head of Indonesia’s maritime security agency called Chinese claims in the area a “real threat” to his country. Jakarta also warned that, if pressed, it could take legal action against China, just as the Philippines did at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Such an action would again cast China in an uncomfortable international spotlight.
Still, China did not seem to have taken the warnings. By the early 2010s, Indonesian maritime authorities had begun to routinely arrest Chinese fishermen in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, leading to some tense moments. In one 2013 incident, a Chinese coast guard vessel reportedly forced an Indonesian patrol boat to release several Chinese fishermen that it had detained for illegal trawling. Things again heated up in 2016 when a dozen Chinese fishing boats refused to heed a warning from an Indonesian navy corvette to leave Indonesia’s waters. And so, the corvette fired warning shots at the fishing boats. That prompted China to deploy its coast guard vessels to the area. In response, the Indonesian navy sent six warships nearby to conduct a 12-day naval exercise in a show of force. Later that year, the Indonesian air force held its own exercise above Natuna Island with F-16 and Su-30 fighters.
While Jakarta eventually played down those incidents, its military has taken concrete steps to defend the sea around the Natuna Islands. It upgraded an airbase at Ranai on Natuna Island so that its frontline Su-27 and Su-30 fighters and new AH-64E attack helicopters could operate closer to the disputed area. It also upgraded the port facilities on the island so that they can accommodate not only smaller offshore patrol boats, but also submarines and larger surface combatants. In late 2018, Indonesia activated a new joint military command on the island and established a submarine forward operating base there. New troops and equipment have also arrived, including a mechanized infantry battalion, a new air search radar system, and electronic support measures monitoring equipment to provide early warning.
Unfortunately for Indonesia, it will likely encounter Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels in its exclusive economic zone again. With enough “salami slicing,” Beijing believes it can wear down Indonesian opposition; and eventually Indonesia, much like Malaysia, will realize that it has little choice but to accommodate China’s presence. The options for Indonesia to respond alone—apart from creating a strong military deterrent—are limited. One tack, potentially useful but risky, would be for it to drop its veneer of neutrality and work either within or outside ASEAN to support Philippine and Vietnamese opposition to China in the Spratly archipelago. Doing so could pin down China’s maritime resources there and hinder its ability to sustain long-distance incursions into waters further south, near the Natuna Islands.
So far, Jakarta has reacted to China’s maritime encroachments with diplomatic protests backed up by occasional shows of force. After its vigorous response in 2016, Indonesia probably hoped that China would have backed off. But the most recent incident demonstrated that China remains undeterred. Thus, at a minimum, Indonesia would be wise to step up its maritime patrols of the disputed waters near the Natuna Islands. “Natuna is a door, if the door is not guarded then thieves will come inside,” explained former Indonesian Minister of Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu. In the years to come, Indonesia will need to do more than post a guard at its door. It will also have to determine what that guard should do if thieves try to break in. That is where things could turn nasty.
 Rizal Sukma, “Indonesia-China Relations: The Politics of Re-engagement,” Asian Survey, Vol. 49 No. 4, July/August 2009, pp. 591-608.
 Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesia officiates military command, submarine base in South China Sea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Dec. 20, 2018; Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesia selects VERA-NG passive surveillance system for Natuna airbase,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Mar. 1, 2018; Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesia to conduct largest-ever military exercises in South China Sea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Oct. 3, 2016; and Ridzwan Rahmat, “Indonesia conducts major naval drills in South China Sea,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Jun. 16, 2016.