Lunyka Adelina Pertiwi
South China Sea claims dispute may be one of the nested maritime dispute in Asia-Pacific since World War II. The complexity appears not only to be linked to many disputant involving i.e China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN countries i.e Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Malaysia, but also to how China’ claims of nine-dash line is based on its own historical approach. China expresses that its claims only are intended to islands within nine-dash line i.e Paracel, Spratly, Zhongsha, and Pratas which China had given firstly names to and controlled since over 2000 years ago.
Obstacles for Code of Conduct
Code of Conduct with guidelines constructed in 2011 is supposed to be likely a legal binding to preserve peace and stability in disputed South China Sea which ASEAN countries perceive that it has to uphold International Law. Through Code of Conduct negotiation, China also asks the disputants to minimize the involvement of other regional powers. Paradoxically, China keeps building maritime infrastructure, investing naval and coast guard ships, and carried out fishing fleets in Spartly Island. These actions unavoidably violate the principles of desired aim of Code of Conduct and its negotiation itself because they have undermined trust over the continuity of talks over CoC and triggered complaints from other disputants, particularly Philippines. Philippine’s worries, then have encouraged United States to back up by deploying its naval forces in four new military bases in Philippines.
Such dynamics automatically have made the finish line for CoC seemingly remain far away from the implementation and compliance for all parties involving in this dispute.
Positions of Indonesia and Australia.
Indonesia and Australia actually have different political standing about the tension in South China Sea.
For Indonesia, the issue of South China Sea is a big challenge for its national interest related maritime boundaries, its relations with China, and its leadership in ASEAN. Since Indonesia is not a formal claimant in territorial dispute of South China Sea, Indonesia’s disposition is more ambiguous, unlike Vietnam’s and Philippine’s which are always consistent to face out China’s excessive actions in disputed territory.
Jakarta continues to insist that it has no territorial dispute over South China Sea and offers to be a mediator. However, Indonesia was ever reported to frequently seize Chinese flagged boats fishing illegally around islands in North Natuna before 2015-2016. North Natuna itself is a part of South China Sea. The relationship between two countries even was ever strained due to China’s allegation towards Indonesian authority for blowing up and/or sinking down the seized Chinese vessels, but this allegation was refuted by Indonesia’s side. Furthermore, in 2021, Indonesia made Chinese Ambassador in Jakarta send the letter of complaint about Indonesian oil exploration near Natuna Islands where China also planted drilling oil rig. China asked Indonesia to halt it, but Indonesia replied this letter with resistance to comply China’s demand.
Unluckily, this ambiguous stance over South China Sea brings risks for Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty and leads to infringements exposed by other disputants. For instance, Vietnam’s and Philippine’s vessels often encroach Indonesia’s Zona Ekonomi Ekslusif (exclusive economic zone) to carry out illegal fishing, so Indonesian maritime border polices challenge and arrest them.
Notwithstanding, the intensity of maritime tensions with China is still at low level. Indonesia also seems to avoid prolonged conflict with China because it only brings collateral damage for economic sectors. Unavoidably, the Indonesian economy relatively depends on China. China is a destination of 30% of Indonesian exported products while Indonesia becomes significant supplier of raw materials to support industrial sector in China. Indonesia, moreover, relies on Chinese business people to invest besides investors from Japan and Singapore.
Then, as a current leader of ASEAN, the over-firmness to counter China’s claim and the extended clash with China in North Natuna would lead to a negative sight that Indonesia is not ready or mature yet to run its promise and role to finish up the consensus related to CoC. For a sake of being a successful mediator, Indonesia seems to have to reduce or even sacrifice its egoistic strategic interests in order to be able to hear others disputants’ arguments and to achieve final aims of conflict management.
Meanwhile, given the situation in South China Sea, Australia is recently struggling to balance the two-ways economic relations with China and the core values and norms Australia upholds. What Australia wants is the rule-based strategic order for Asia-Pacific regional stability. Moreover, Freedom of Overflight and Navigation (FON) in Asian and Pacific maritime zones is really important for Australia to guarantee seaborne trading and supply from and to the North and North East of Australia. So, for Australia which is increasingly concerned in its economic interests with region of Asia, the dispute in South East Asia threatens the freedom of air and navigation underpinning global shipping and overflight (FON) access, including that between Australia and some of its main trading partners, such as Japan.
As a result, Australia has bravely criticized on unilateral China’s nine dash line claim, exploration and exploitation in South China Sea are illegal and breaching international law. Even Australia keeps its presence on military training and airborne monitoring activity which is a part of legal Freedom of Navigation Program (FONOPs) above South East Asian area including South China Sea, so-called Operation Gateway having being carried out since 1980 instead of giving up towards China’s opposition on it. From Australia’s perspective such a operation is a part of its long term contribution to stability and security in South East Asia under Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) between Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and United Kingdom.
Australia seems to encourage that CoC requires China’s shift-behavior of China in South China Sea and consistency with the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling when the period of negotiation, otherwise there will be no agreement of CoC implementation and the conflict will continue to rise.
Indonesia and Australia: Similarities and Potential to Mediate
Even though Indonesia and Australia political postures regarding South China Sea are diverging, these two countries have similar normative base, i.e to resolve a conflict with dialogue rather than frontal military war.
Australia is non-claimant and non-ASEAN but it is prominent and trusted trading partner of ASEAN. This advantage should be availed by Australia to increase level of communication with Indonesia as a chairman of ASEAN how to coordinate a dialogue based on socialization, which can be trusted by and engage China and all claimants, not only those who suffer lot from China aggressive actions in South China Sea.
Socialization-based dialogue is a forum where mediators can promote norms, practice, rules and their structures and normative meanings of United Nations Convention on Law Of Sea (UNCLOS), FON and FONAP as well as the limitation for FONAP practice (if China wants) to all disputants before the next rounds of CoC. CoC meetings are expected to include socialization based dialogue sections when each disputed country should be provided opportunities to define their interests and identity heard by other parties until they in the end can redefine their interests and disposition. As mediators, Australia and Indonesia may be able to allow epistemic community into socialization-based dialogues. Epistemic community will help disputants by contributing its recommendations, based on its expertise, about the implementations of CoC which can be adopted fairly by each party’s foreign policy and domestic policies.
A series of socialization-based dialogues absolutely takes a time and may lead the CoC to slowly progress, but more importantly such dialogues would be great potential to resolve territorial disputes in South Sea China and to build trust between ASEAN, Australia, China, and Taiwan.
Lunyka Adelina Pertiwi is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at Institute of Political Science, Eberhard Karl University of Tübingen, Germany. She is awarded Promotionsstipendium-Landesgraduiertenförderung (State Graduate Funding) of University of Tübingen for her PhD project. Her research interests include Asia-Pacific, European Union, Russia, political and security issues and foreign policy.