Indonesia’s Response on South China Sea : Too Late, Too Lame

At the beginning of the new decade, international community were immediately greeted with several turmoil. One that received the most attention from Indonesian audiences was the sailing of several Chinese vessels into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Natuna Islands region, Riau Islands Province. Moreover, two of the dozens vessels sailing were Chinese coastguard vessels specifically tasked to secure the interests of China in its claimed territory in the South China Sea (Lo, 2020).

This event certainly received a strong reaction from the people of Indonesia. Firstly, this is because the China’s action in Natuna region is clearly an illegal act. China specifically violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which regulates maritime control zones based on coastlines. The law clearly states that a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is 200 km from the country’s outer coastline. However, China itself has their own version of EEZ called the Nine-Dash Line which is a line made unilaterally by China without going through legal conventions. The determination of the nine-dash line itself refers to the historical territory of the seas of Chinese fishermen since the Dynasty era and begin to pop up in the map of modern China since 1947. Legally since 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled that China has no legal basis to claim “historic rights” within its nine-dash line (Jiangtao & Mai, 2020). With such unlawful behavior, it is not surprising that the public demand the Indonesian government to react strongly in order to maintain the country’s authority and sovereignty.

The second reason that made the community’s react aggressively was people’s sentiment towards China in Indonesia. Since the election period, the issue of China has become one of the main issues where President Jokowi is considered to be too dependent on China. In the economic sector, Mr. President sometimes considered tending to marginalize his domestic public interests to keep China happy. Along with the issue of Uyghurs, which recently receives a sharp spotlight from Indonesian Moslem, who strongly condemn China’s treatment towards Uyghurs Moslem minority. The government response to the violation of sovereignty by China is highly awaited because it is considered to be a test of Indonesia’s assertiveness in dealing with threats from outside, especially a real threat from China, a country that Indonesia is considered to be too dependent on.

When China finally does its action in Natuna, which actually has been feared since the escalation of South China Sea dispute in the mid- 2010s, Indonesian government can not provide a strong response that could satisfy the public interest and give a tangible solutions for the problem. In its response, Indonesia seem to be unprepared to face the problem of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Although a form of diplomatic protest note had been submitted to the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs, the contents of the diplomatic note were rejected outright by the Chinese side by emphasizing that they have claims in the region. To appease public, Indonesian government tried to explain that this problem was not a serious problem that had to be exaggerated (Anwar, 2020).

The lack of response regarding the issue of South China Sea started since the 2014 presidential campaign period. At that time, when asked about Indonesia’s position regarding South China Sea, Jokowi stated emphatically that Indonesia had no part in the South China sea dispute. According to him there is no area of Indonesia that is under a threat to be claimed in this dispute (Arief, 2014). After becoming president, it was clear that Jokowi were hesitate and reluctant to resolve the problems in South China Sea. Whereas since 2016, China has openly stated that some parts of the Natuna sea is included in the territorial waters of China based on nine-dash line that they use for territorial determination. The World Maritime Axis declared by the president in fact also does not provide any solution other than strengthening domestic maritime connectivity through infrastructure development. During his first period as president, Jokowi seemed hesitant to take confident steps in order to not sever relations with China as one of the main business and investment partners who played a major role in financing the development efforts undertaken by the Joko Widodo government (Conelly, 2017).

Indonesia’s biggest opportunity lost is to bring this problem to the international level and become a leader for ASEAN countries who are also in dispute in this region. In practice, Indonesia tends to take its own steps without involving other ASEAN countries in taking strategic steps against China. This makes other countries in Southeast Asia become more isolated and vulnerable to the pressure of Chinese diplomacy (Conelly, 2017). Whereas, Indonesia’s leadership in dealing with China in South China Sea dispute can also become the answer to all doubts about Indonesia’s role as a natural born leader in the ASEAN region which increasingly has become irrelevant after the end of the New Order Regime. In dealing with China in this dispute, countries in ASEAN now tend to take their own steps so that they don’t need to put strong diplomatic pressure on Beijing. As a result, violations after violations are still being carried out by China in disputed areas in the South China Sea. The presence of Indonesia as the leader of ASEAN countries in this dispute can also reduce interdependence to global major power while preventing the involvement of outsiders which could actually heightened the political atmosphere. For example, the US involvement in South China Sea dispute, with a global political climate that is heating up, the involvement of outsiders such as the US in the South China Sea dispute can trigger more serious conflicts such as the possibility of an armed war in the East Asia region that is feared to have a chain effect to encourage another major war in the near future.

What’s Next for Indonesia?

Now that China has seriously disrupted Indonesia’s sovereignty in Natuna waters, of course, strategic steps must be taken immediately by the Indonesian government. Unilateral diplomacy efforts have been carried out and led resulting in explicit rejection by the Chinese government. This exact moment is the time for Indonesia to shift through a multilateral approach in response to China. Multilateral diplomacy involving other ASEAN countries which are also in dispute must be implemented immediately. Indonesia must emerge as the leader of ASEAN by bringing the issue of the South China Sea dispute as the main topic to be discussed at the ASEAN Summit which is scheduled to take place in April / May 2020.

Although armed conflict is not the best way out of this dispute given the potential causality that can be generated, steps like sending the military to Natuna Island to face the worst possibility is a step that needs to be explored as long as it is still in accordance with the rules of international law, especially with the need to convince public that Indonesia is serious in dealing with violations of sovereignty and responding the claim on the Jokowi government‘s dependence on China.


Anwar, M. (2020). Luhut: Soal Natuna Tak Usah Dibesar-Besarkan Lah!. Retrieved 6 January 2020, from https://

Arief, T. (2014). DEBAT CAPRES: Jokowi Menyatakan Indonesia Tidak Terlibat Sengketa Laut China Selatan | Kabar24 – Retrieved 6 January 2020, from read/20140623/355/237935/debat-capres-jokowi-menyatakan-indonesia-tidak-terlibat-sengketalaut-china-selatan

Conelly, A. (2017). Indonesia di Laut China Selatan: Berjalan Sendiri. Lowry Institute. Retrieved from https://www.

Jiangtao, S., & Mai, J. (2020). China’s Xi Jinping rejects any action based on international court’s South China Sea ruling. Retrieved 6 January 2020, from article/1988990/chinas-xi-jinping-rejects-any-action-based

Lo, K. (2020). Indonesia-Beijing dispute could lead to tough South China Sea code. Retrieved 6 January 2020, from

Writer : Muhammad Indrawan Jatmika

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