Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, plans to contest China’s territorial claims in a visit to the Natuna islands on Thursday. The trip comes days after a series of skirmishes between the Indonesian navy and Chinese fishing boats. Reuters has the story:
The Indonesian president will travel to the Natuna Islands for the first time on Thursday to assert Indonesia’s sovereignty, a senior official said, after China said earlier this week it had an “overlapping claim” over nearby waters.
Beijing said on Monday that waters near the Natuna Islands were subject to overlapping claims on “maritime rights and interests” between China and Indonesia.
Indonesia’s foreign minister on Wednesday rejected China’s stance, saying the waters were in Indonesian territory.
“Our position is clear that claims can only be made on the basis of international law. For Indonesia, we don’t have overlapping claims in any form in Indonesian waters with China,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters.
Indonesia does not take a position in the South China Sea disputes which have put much of Southeast Asia at odds with Beijing. That’s unlikely to change any time soon, but Jokowi’s visit does highlight the challenge many Asian politicians face as Chinese aggression stokes nationalist fires across the region. By bringing attention to overlapping claims, Beijing makes it harder for other governments to stay focused on the economic rationale for working with China.
The problem is that although Indonesia doesn’t like what China’s doing, it’s not particularly happy with everyone else who is angry at China either. The “enemy of my enemy” logic doesn’t work particularly well in Southeast Asia: Jakarta has never really been friendly with China, but it also doesn’t get along very well with, for example, Kuala Lumpur. Lately, Indonesia and Australia have been trying to work together, but that too has been a fraught endeavor. Indonesia’s balancing act is the result of centuries of wars and disputes.
The mutual mistrust in Southeast Asia is an important reason for Washington to be more engaged. The United States may not be the most popular country in the region (although in some countries, like Vietnam, many people do think highly of America), but the combination of real power and outsider status make Washington a critical arbiter. U.S. diplomats and military officials can bring Asian countries together in a way that likely couldn’t happen without U.S. influence.