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  • The Domestic Politics of Indonesia’s Approach to the Tribunal Ruling and the South China Sea
  • Evan A. Laksmana (bio)

Indonesia’s immediate response to the 12 July ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal was under-whelming. The foreign ministry issued a bland, lacklustre five-sentence statement:

  • • Indonesia calls on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from escalatory activities while securing Southeast Asia from military activities that could threaten peace and stability, and instead should respect international law, including 1982 UNCLOS.

  • • Indonesia calls on all parties to continue the common commitment to uphold peace and exhibit friendship and cooperation, as have been well-sustained thus far.

  • • Indonesia urges all parties in the South China Sea to behave and conduct their activities according to agreed-upon principles.

  • • Indonesia will continue to push for a peaceful, free, and neutral zone in Southeast Asia to further strengthen the ASEAN political and security community. [End Page 382]

  • • Indonesia urges all claimant states to continue peaceful negotiations over the overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea according to international law.1

At first glance, there is nothing fundamentally disagreeable about the statement. After all, Indonesia remains technically a non-claimant in the South China Sea dispute. Upon closer examination, however, the statement appears to be yet another example of Indonesia’s inconsistent approach to the South China Sea, as well as to increasing encroachments by China into the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands. Indeed, just a few weeks prior to the ruling, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (better known as Jokowi) staged a symbolic “show of force” by visiting the Natunas aboard the same warship that fired on Chinese fishing vessels operating in the area the week before. What then explains Indonesia’s lacklustre response to the ruling and general inconsistency over the South China Sea problem?

This article argues that Indonesia’s inconsistency should be placed within the deeper and broader historical ambivalence embedded in the bilateral relationship with China and in Indonesia’s awkward non-claimant position, as well as the country’s chaotic domestic maritime security governance. These permissive (or antecedent) conditions, however, are necessary but insufficient to explain Indonesia’s lukewarm response to the ruling. This article argues that President Jokowi’s lack of personal interest and grasp of foreign policy provides the more proximate (or triggering) condition behind the response. Specifically, his aloofness has led to deteriorating bureaucratic politics and the growing influence of a small number of advisers outside of the foreign ministry — a “foreign policy oligarchy” if you will — in the formulation of the country’s China policy. Taken together, these permissive and triggering conditions point to the primacy of domestic politics, rather than well-developed geopolitical considerations, in shaping Indonesia’s overall approach to the South China Sea, and its insipid response to the ruling in particular. The following sections expand and elaborate these arguments.

Indonesia’s China and South China Sea Challenges

Scholars have noted that given the tumultuous history of Indonesia–China ties going back to the 1950s, Jakarta’s political elite have always been ambivalent about China.2 This ambivalence has been shaped by China’s geographic proximity, how its expansionist history has [End Page 383] been taught in Indonesian schools and by the controversial role of ethnic Chinese-Indonesians in the economic life of the country (and the history of violence against them). Recently, even as Indonesia’s prosperity has been increasingly tied to China’s growth, Jakarta has become wary about the incompatibilities between the economies of the two countries, which drives the depiction of China as a strategic “challenge”, rather than a direct “threat”. These doubts constantly re-emerge whenever China is talked about in Indonesia.

As far as the public is concerned, perceptions of China are more contradictory. A 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center noted that 60 per cent of Indonesians welcomed the idea of a strong China that could rival American military strength. Similarly, a 2006 poll by the Lowy Institute suggested that over half of Indonesians thought that China could “somewhat be trusted”. However, nearly half of respondents in 2008 were worried that China could become a military...