On Natuna, Beijing Might Just Be Biding Its Time
When China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei announced earlier this month that his government was “willing to accept” Indonesia’s sovereign claim to the Natuna Islands, Jakarta indeed scored an important diplomatic victory over Beijing. But while the Chinese affirmation enhanced understanding between the two countries, there are mitigating factors to suggest that Beijing’s assurances may not be as iron-clad as they seem.
Although China’s public recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over the islands effectively dispels any uncertainty about Beijing’s intent, the fact remains China hasn’t formally abandoned its Nine-Dash Line. Known in Chinese as nánhǎi jiǔduàn xiàn (Nine-segment line of the South Sea), it forms the core for Beijing’s foreign policy doctrine concerning the South China Sea. Even depicted on Chinese passports, the Nine-Dash Line stands unperturbed; and so do China’s claims.
By the same token, China’s “acceptance” may merely amount to a tentative “concession” to Indonesia rather than a permanent act of recognition. As long as the Nine-Dash Line still includes a portion of the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Natuna Islands, there’s every danger that a withdrawal of recognition may occur in the future, should relations between the two countries go awry.
It’s noteworthy that China’s determination in translating its South China Sea doctrine into action seems to have ebbed and flowed according to changing circumstances. It’s as if Beijing is perennially testing the waters, literally.
In 2009, for example, it controversially lodged the Nine-Dash Line with the United Nations to highlight its territorial claims in the area. The following year, it reportedly told US officials the disputes in the South China Sea were of the same priority to the Chinese government as Taiwan’s status, only to relent somewhat later. Then China intensified its efforts which led to its naval skirmishes with Vietnamese and Philippine forces in 2014.
The comparison between the Nine-Dash Line and Taiwan illustrates how cunningly flexible the Chinese approach to territorial disputes is. While in principle Beijing claims Taiwan as part of China, it has so far allowed the island nation to maintain a de facto renegade government.
The same flexibility seems to have been at work in the Natuna Islands recognition. The Washington Times reported that just before China's announcement, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan told the media that Indonesia was considering following the Philippines’ lead by taking the matter before an international tribunal. Such a move would have been unwelcome in Beijing, especially when the international Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled late last month that it would hear Manila’s grievances against Beijing in the South China Sea disputes.
This legal setback for Beijing came after the destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands chain, where China had been turning three reefs into artificial islands. An Indonesian legal challenge would have been another tactical mishap that Beijing clearly couldn’t afford. Refrain has always been considered a Chinese virtue after all, as reflected in the proverb jūnzǐ bàochóu, shí nián wèi wǎn (When a nobleman takes revenge, ten years is not too late).
Perhaps Beijing’s favorable attitude towards Jakarta was to be expected, since Indonesia had recently done it a good turn when choosing a Chinese consortium over a Japanese rival to construct a new Jakarta-Bandung railway.
But the catch is by conceding the Natunas’ sovereignty to Indonesia, China remains true to its salami tactics when dealing with the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the ongoing South China Sea disputes, time and again denying them a united front on the issue.
For a moment, it did look like Asean unity against Chinese claims in the area was on the cards. Indonesia’s own stance was hardening towards China mainly because it hadn’t received any satisfactory news about the Natuna Islands. During his Q&A time at the Brookings Institute on his last US visit, President Joko Widodo remarked: “We believe that the sea [is] a public good. We reject any attempt by any state to control and dominate the sea and turn it into an arena for strategy competition.”
It’s possible that by “accepting Indonesia’s claim of sovereignty” over the Natunas, China hopes to dissuade it from playing a more active role in the South China Sea disputes. After all, for decades Jakarta was a mere observer or “mediator” at best while China, Vietnam and the Philippines were maneuvering against one another.
China’s adventures in what it calls the South Sea have been a series of gambits adaptable to circumstances; from one-sided raucous claims of absolute sovereignty to the formation of artificial islands. Some were successful and others foundered, such as when the US recently decided to make its presence felt by sending a warship through the troubled waters.
For now, China may be finding its movement in the South Sea restricted by the renewed US vigor and the Philippine legal challenge. By recognizing Indonesia’s claim to the Natunas, it may have wanted to shepherd Jakarta back from the verge of becoming an interested party in the disputes, hence preserving what it has achieved so far in the disputes, without the complications of meeting a new adversary. But this story isn't over yet.
First published in the Jakarta Globe : http://jakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/opinion/johannes-nugroho-natuna-beiji...