Can Indonesia Avoid Confrontation With China? OpEd


China’s engagement in the Indian Ocean has raised an alarm for the region. Military activities – developing nuclear submarines and anchoring warships in several ports – could cause some countries to increase their awareness. India and the West, especially the United States (US), have responded to China’s growing moves by accelerating their cooperation and communication.

Geographically, the Indian Ocean is a strategic water. As reported by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2022,  over 80 percent of the world’s total maritime oil is processed via the waters. In addition, the Indian Ocean is a spot to the three main choke points, ranging from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. Since Xi Jinping’s era, China has secured its economic influx. Hence, for those reasons, China’s presence is reasonable. 

The Pentagon, the US military unit, released a report that shows the increasing number of China’s military units and predicts it could grow to 395 by 2025 and 435 ships by 2030. Beijing’s efforts to dominate the waters could be seen in its foreign policy called “String of Pearls,” a strategic policy to enhance China’s position by controlling the ports. In 2017, for the first time, China built a dock in Djibouti, a horn of Africa. It has been debatable by some scholars with various arguments. Chinese scholars said with the port, China could give and send humanitarian assistance to some underdeveloped countries in crisis. However, Western scholars, who are skeptical, argue that it was China’s foremost step to control the world. 

In the domestic structure, after a long time of missing out, President Xi replaced his Ministry of Defense Li Shangfu with Dong Jun, who has experience in the conflicting issue, and he was a former navy commander. China is the only state with diplomatic relations with the Indian Ocean nations – Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Coromos. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, embarked in January 2022 to Morono, the Capital of Comoros, to talk about bilateral ties. In recent years, China’s navy conducted the Sea Guardians joint maritime exercise in the northern Arabian Sea. In addition, China’s spy ship Shi-Yan 6 anchored in Sri Lanka, which was controversial. The Sri Lankan government said China’s ships do not have permission. 

Indonesia’s Steps

China’s engagement in the waters could be an alarm to Indonesia. For Indonesia, the Indian Ocean is very prominent in the increasing economic sector. Hence, Indonesia should take some policies regarding China’s military activities. A study written by Brewster argues that China could be a new hegemony in that area, conflicting with the West and India. 

First, Indonesia should increase military cooperation with the traditional powers; India could be one of its examples. Since 2016, both leaders of the countries – Modi and Jokowi – have shared the same views on maritime security. Jokowi introduced the Global Maritime Fulcrum in 2014, and Modi introduced Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). In their recent maritime cooperation, both countries agreed to establish maritime connectivity between the Andaman and Nicobar, and Aceh. India also assisted Indonesia in advancing a port on Sabang Island for an epitome of maritime link. In 2018, the Indian Coast Guard agency and Bakamla cooperated in holding a high-level meeting to strengthen maritime law enforcement. 

In October 2023, two Indian Navy ships and two Indian Coast Guard vessels arrived in Indonesia to conduct some military training and exercises. Indonesia and India, again, shared some views on China’s move. Both parties likely agreed that to negotiate with China, they need an extra effort – Indonesia has a conflict with China in the North Natuna; India has a conflict with China in Ladakh. Indonesia also reflected on its dispute with China, which was never solved. 

Second, to secure its sovereignty, Indonesia could speak firmly and loudly to revive Indonesia’s foreign policy doctrine, free and active. This doctrine not only consists of Indonesia’s neutral position but Indonesia’s stand on peace. Indonesia already has done this in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Ukraine-Russia conflict. In the mid of 2022, for example, President Jokowi and his delegations went to Ukraine and Russia to meet the leaders to reduce the escalation of the conflict. 

Third, increase military activities (navy) in some crucial cities near the Indian Ocean, like Lampung and Aceh. In this part, Indonesia’s policy has been very narrow. For example, Indonesia initiated the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) in 2014, which has generated some operations around the waters. On January 18, 2023, Bakamla’s report showed several movements by Chinese ships Xiang Yang Hong. However, since being established, Bakamla has been facing some hurdles, such as a limited budget to increase its capability and capacity. 

M Habib Pashya

M Habib Pashya is a Master's student at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). His research focuses on China's foreign policy, Indonesia's foreign policy, and US-Taiwan-China relations.

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