The hole in the Asian doughnut

Indonesia’s role as a maritime Asian nation needs to be strengthened but the country's recent 'shock therapy' on illegal fishing won't go down well.

East Asia Forum

The mutuality of Asia’s economic interests centring on deepening economic integration is a potential foundation for building an Asian economic community that encompasses the ASEAN 10 plus their six neighbours, Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The group, with close to two-fifths of world output, constitutes a growing slice of the global economy -- and is a major force of economic dynamism, with China’s growth expected to nudge 7 per cent again this year, India’s on the rise again and Indonesia’s stabilising at least, and possibly on the up once more. The ambitions for stronger economic cooperation are defined within ASEAN by the goal of building the ASEAN Economic Community and, by the broader group, in the negotiation of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. This year, 2015, is a key year in both endeavours.

Yet, there’s a hole in the Asian doughnut, a zone of less than fulsome cooperation over rights to the fisheries, resources and territories across the seas that connect Asia’s growing economic powers. There are the territorial issues between Japan and China (as well as Taiwan) in the East China Sea and Japan and South Korea in the Sea of Japan (or the East Sea). And there are the issues between China and five of the ASEAN partners in the South China Sea. Resolving maritime issues is bound up with progress on building an Asia Community.

Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has declared a new maritime priority for the Indonesian state. The largest archipelagic state in the world, Indonesia encompasses huge marine resources. The country has a total land area of 1.9 million square kilometres and an additional 3.2 million square kilometres of ocean lie within its borders. Unlike its ASEAN partners, among them Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia ostensibly has no direct maritime disputes with China, although Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Jokowi’s newly appointed chief of staff, was recently keen to make clear that Natuna, an area supposedly rich in gas reserves and on the edge of China’s famous nine-dash line, was clearly Indonesian territory.

Last month saw the Jokowi government assert Indonesia’s new maritime priorities in a somewhat dramatic way -- blowing up three Vietnamese boats found illegally fishing in the Natuna Sea. Carefully filmed and given wide publicity, this was meant to be a lesson, not specifically to the Vietnamese but to all who daily trespass in Indonesian waters. The Australian navy should be warned that its less than perfect navigational skills could be on notice! According to President Jokowi some 5,400 foreign boats intrude into Indonesian waters, ‘over 90 per cent of them illegally’.

Indonesia’s maritime priorities are an overdue and legitimate focus of national policy. Its seaways have too long been a barrier to, rather than a facilitator of, national integration. Its role as a maritime Asian nation needs to be strengthened as an enhancement to regional stability. Its neighbours, including Australia, Singapore, Malaysia as well as China and Japan have a constructive interest in this development.

But the Indonesian domestic political theatre around getting tough on illegal fishing in December and delivering ‘shock therapy’ (as Jokowi described it) to the Vietnamese offenders play somewhat awkwardly into the bigger regional drama surrounding the rights of access to the neighbouring South China Seas.

There is every sign that the Jokowi administration views the China relationship very positively and would not deliberately wish to knock it off course. He returned home after the APEC summit in China last November with very positive messages about its future. China is Indonesia’s second largest trading partner, and the bilateral relationship was upgraded into a comprehensive strategic partnership when President Xi visited Indonesia just over a year ago. Indonesia has joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (and offered to host it) and Jokowi in recent times noted the close alignment between Indonesia’s and China’s overarching maritime concepts -- Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum and China’s Maritime Silk Road.

In this week’s lead essay, Sourabh Gupta reminds us that, on an extremely well-informed reading of the issue, China’s controversial nine-dash line in the South China Sea might be seen as an indication of ‘the geographic limit of China’s historically formed and accepted traditional fishing rights in the semi-enclosed waters of the South China Sea, which are exercised today on a non-exclusive basis’. He argues persuasively that a US State Department study incorrectly suggests that ‘China, in acceding to UNCLOS’s exclusive economic zone regime and its exclusivity-based prerogatives, effectively conceded all prior usage-based claims that it may have held in foreign EEZs, even in semi-enclosed seas’.

While the onus, Gupta maintains, is on China to suggest the basis on which the nine-dash line might be interpreted to be in compliance with international law, ‘so long as China limits these rights to traditional fishing activities -- not resource development or marine scientific research -- and exercises them on a non-exclusive basis, the nine-dash line as a perimeter of China’s exercise and enforcement of such historic rights is not inconsistent with international law…(and) can remain a permanent feature of the South China Sea’s political and maritime landscape’.

Indonesia has played an extremely constructive role in ASEAN-China diplomacy over the vexed territorial issues and access rights in the South China Sea. It might not wish to compromise its role and broader regional interests in building an effective Asian Community there by blowing up a few Chinese fishing boats, even if they have strayed into what are unequivocally Indonesian waters. 

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum. 

This article first appeared on East Asia Forum. Republished with permission.

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