Indonesia and Chinese ‘congagement’

Posted on August 20, 2012


Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa (L) welcomes his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi (C) prior to a meeting at the foreign ministry office in Jakarta on August 10, 2012. Indonesian and Chinese officials have agreed to improve bilateral relations while settling several political issues, an Indonesian official said. AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO

If  one were to ask various Indonesian strategic thinkers, what policy, if any, Indonesia is pursuing towards China; one would likely hear phrases like Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa’s “dynamic equilibrium”, “balance of power”, or President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s doctrine of “one thousand friends, zero enemies”.

“Congagement” would not be mentioned. Congagement, or the idea of combining engagement and containment, seems to make Indonesian strategic thinkers uneasy. The engagement part  seems to pose no problem – Jakarta is deepening economic and political ties with Beijing. The idea of containment, however, still conjures up images of the Cold War when the US embarked on a policy of preventing the spread of communist ideology.

Yet, “congagement” does not solely advocate pursuing a policy of engagement in congruence with a policy of containment. Rather, it asks policymakers to transcend both. “Congagement” seeks to offer strategic flexibility in an opaque period of Chinese transition. In essence, it would yoke Beijing and Jakarta together, enmeshing China within the current international system, while giving equal consideration to deterrence. It would prepare for potential Chinese provocations within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), while also notifying the Chinese leadership that such adventurism could prove to be hazardous.

Indonesian policy makers, although they may be unaware, are already pursuing the beginnings of a “congagement” strategy. Jakarta has been building an economic and political web between itself in Beijing, while also in some ways hedging against China’s uncertain rise.

Indeed, economically, China is Indonesia’s second-largest trading partner. Trade reached US$60 billion in 2011, with expectations that it will reach $80 billion by 2015. Beijing has been heavily investing in Indonesia’s infrastructure with $19 billion of investment credit pledged and another $9 billion in infrastructure loans offered. China also recently offered to build a coastal surveillance system to complement the existing US funded Integrated Maritime Surveillance System (IMSS).

Politically, Jakarta and Beijing entered into a Strategic Partnership in 2005, with plans to boost cultural exchanges and people to people cooperation in the coming year. Both Indonesia and China have sought to maximize bilateral ties, while keeping political disputes as modest as possible: Jakarta has embraced Beijing’s “One China” policy, while Beijing remained fairly mum after the 1998 riots in Jakarta against Indonesians of Chinese dissent.

Indonesia, as de-facto leader of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has encouraged the inclusion of China in various regional forums from ASEAN+3, the broader ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). Jakarta and Beijing have also enhanced military-to-military cooperation through joint naval missile developments, joint exercises, maritime security, national defense industry exchanges and cooperation in non-traditional security fields.

Yet, despite increased engagement, Jakarta has attempted to curb against potential incursions within its maritime backyard through military modernization and multilateral initiatives. The Ministry of Defense’s strategic planning objective of achieving “minimum essential forces” by 2024 envisions a naval force with “green water” capabilities, with the capacity to protect key sea-lanes and choke points against potential conventional or non-conventional threats.

Acquisition plans include diesel electric submarines, missile-guided destroyers, fast attack missile boats, torpedo boats and minesweepers. Additionally, Jakarta, by supporting the inclusion of key extra-regional actors, such as the United States and Russia in forums such as the East Asia Summit, while also discreetly encouraging the United States to remain actively involved in the region is providing a diplomatic hedge to possible Chinese expansionism.

Indonesia’s current policy, despite showing signs of a “congagement” strategy, falls short of credibly responding to the various destabilizing trends that are currently rippling through the South China Sea. Notwithstanding certain forward thinking acquisition plans, Jakarta’s current strategy revolves primarily around a “diplomatic security perspective” – with diplomacy construed as the first line of defense – through regional and international cooperation. If diplomacy failed to prevent a conventional military strike on Indonesia’s territory, then Indonesia would revert to a seemingly archaic “Total People’s War” strategy to protect its territorial integrity.

However, as last month’s ASEAN Summit in Cambodia demonstrated, utilizing diplomacy as the main mechanism for forward protection may not be sound. ASEAN’s July 2012 summit witnessed the first time in 45 years that ASEAN was unable to produce a joint communique, as the group was split over the South China Sea. With the ASEAN member states fracturing, concerns are arising that the organization will no longer be able to effectively respond to overlapping territorial claims amongst themselves and China.

Indonesia’s strategy coupled with ASEAN’s recent failure appears all the more disconcerting as China more aggressively flexes its muscles in the South China Sea. The infamous 2009 Impeccable incident, the illegal detainment of over 700 Vietnamese fisherman, the Scarborough Shoal faceoff, and the 2009 and 2010 fishery standoffs in Indonesian waters, when taken together, seem indicative of a larger trend by the Chinese to assert control of its historic claims to the South China Sea.

China’s “9 dotted line” (delineating its claim of much of the South China Sea) overlaps with Indonesia’s EEZ, adjacent to the Natuna Islands: Indonesia’s energy rich sea bed with Asia’s largest concentration of natural gas reserves. An interview with a key Indonesian strategic thinker, Andi Widjajanto, in Jakarta early last month revealed that the Indonesian government is beginning to view the Natuna Islands and their surrounding waters as a potential major flashpoint with the Chinese. Indeed, after a visit to the Natuna Island this past May, Major General Paul Lodewijk asserted that its surrounding waters were highly vulnerable to foreign incursions, both Chinese and Malaysian, because of its resource wealth and made plans to add additional troops.

Building on Indonesia’s current policies and instigating a full “congagment” strategy will provide Indonesia with the versatility it currently needs. If China in the future were to cooperate and respect territorial delineations outlined by Article 56 of the United Nations Council on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) treaty, of which China is a signatory, Jakarta’s policy could move it towards enhanced mutual accommodation with Beijing. However, if China continues to pursue expansionist policies, flexing its muscles in a bid to gain access to key Indonesian resources and sea-lanes, Jakarta’s posture could revert into classic containment and hard balancing through other extra-regional powers.

What can be done to expand on Indonesia’s current policies in order to flesh out a more substantive policy of “congagement” towards China?

1. First of all, work towards enhancing economic, political and cultural ties with Beijing. Focus on addressing key economic stumbling blocs between both states, particularly difficulties faced by Indonesian local industries due to flood of Chinese imports from the passing of ACFTA.

2. Secondly, Indonesia should encourage ASEAN members to delineate areas of conflict and seek to resolve territorial disputes within the group allowing it to present a united front when engaging China. After the breakdown on the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Indonesia’s efforts, creating common ground among member states and releasing a six-point statement asserting the “ASEAN way”, was a step in the right direction. However, as the Philippines and Vietnam did not entirely agree with the statement, more must be done.

3. Third, Indonesia should work towards developing and building upon current military to military interactions and exchanges. Military contact will help China’s military understand Indonesia’s militaries capabilities, concerns and intentions should it feel threatened. More importantly, it will also allow the Indonesian military to better understand China’s capabilities and potential weaknesses. When engaging in defense cooperation, Indonesia should explicitly state the nature of the defense relationship to quell concerns among ASEAN member states. Jakarta should continue to pursue trust building military measures such as the proposed trilateral military initiative between China, Indonesia, and the United States outside Darwin.

4. Finally, Indonesia needs to strengthen its own capabilities in order to deter potential Chinese expansionism. Indonesia’s military must develop an effective offensive sea denial capability utilizing key asymmetric capabilities: mines, submarines and missile armed fast attack crafts. Indonesia currently does have an area-access/ area denial (A2/AD) concept, which emphasizes the deployment of naval mines and submarines in Indonesian waters, however it remains tactically defensive. In this field as in others, it may prove useful for Indonesian strategists to take a leaf out of China’s book – and adopt a posture that is more tactically offensive, while remaining strategically defensive.

Jennifer McArdle

Posted in: Politics