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Why China is not about to see Indonesia lead Asean in South China Sea defiance

2020-02-24 10:39:51       source:NISCSS

February 10, 2020

I refer to Ankit Panda’s “It is time for Southeast Asia to stand together against China – with Indonesia leading the way” (January 27). It is wishful thinking to suggest that Indonesia will lead Asean in uniting against China.


Indonesia does not want its recent maritime tiff with China to escalate. Its response was subdued compared to a 2016 incident in which its navy actually fired at a Chinese vessel. This time, although military vessels and aircraft were deployed to the area, their actions were restrained.


In early January, Navy Commander Fajar Tri Rohadi said, “We want to enforce the law without heating things up.” Indonesia’s Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto also emphasised that “China is a friendly nation”. Luhut Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment minister, echoed Prabowo, saying “Indonesia and China should not quarrel.”


There are good reasons for this relatively restrained approach. Indonesia’s principal security concern is internal stability. To maintain that stability, it needs rapid economic growth and China provides significant economic assistance and investment.


Thus, it has maintained a careful balance between mollifying its nationalist anti-China elements and persuading China to have its vessels leave its exclusive economic zone, at least temporarily.


It has so far preserved its national interests without endangering Chinese investment or providing sufficient fodder for domestic anti-China nationalists. Unless China loses patience and does something really foolish to upset the apple cart, Indonesia is unlikely to abandon what analyst Prashanth Parameswaran has called a “delicate equilibrium”.


China is also showing restraint, not least in admitting that its fishermen had taken catch from waters claimed by Indonesia and it apparently ordered its fishing boats to at least temporarily leave Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone.


Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines also seem to be making their own individual adjustments to China’s claims and actions.


This incident is likely but a blip in the overall long-term mutual adjustment in China-Southeast Asian relations to accommodate China’s rise. Those hoping for this incident to be a turning point in uniting Southeast Asian opposition to Beijing in the South China Sea are likely to be disappointed.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/3049437/why-china-not-about-see-indonesia-lead-asean-south-china-sea 

The NISCSS is authorized to re-publish this article on it.