Pulling No Punches

Despite tense times with China and the US, Jakarta worked to strengthen its ties with neighboring Australia, Malaysia, and Japan in line with the president's plan to intensify Indonesian economic diplomacy.

Throughout the course of 2017, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) stayed true to his administration’s promise to pursue a three-pronged diplomatic approach that focused on maintaining Indonesian sovereignty, protecting citizens working abroad, and intensifying Indonesian economic diplomacy throughout the region and world at large. Not afraid to cross etymological swords with Beijing, in July Indonesia finally threw its hat in the fevered South China Sea ring by unveiling a new map that renamed the resource-rich area around its northern Natuna Islands the “North Natuna Sea.” An area that lies in the far southern stretches of what’s more broadly known as the South China Sea, it was a calculated move to assert Indonesian sovereignty over its portion of the region’s second-most critical flashpoint after North Korea.

Beijing reacted with predictable rhetorical fury. Though a previously neutral party in the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea, the new map demonstrated that Indonesia is not afraid to put its cartographical money where its mouth is. It also comes as a sharp repeal of Beijing’s notorious “nine-dash line,” a line first drawn in the sand at the bottom of the sea by the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1947 and later taken up by the People’s Republic of China after ceding two of the original 11 dashes to its fellow people’s republic in Vietnam. In any case, Indonesia’s North Natuna Sea map was its hardest punch yet in a regional scuffle that has already brought Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines to the blacktop.

As Jakarta works to register the new name with the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) in Monaco, it joins the Philippines in its ongoing struggle at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to get in writing from the world’s leading international legal arbitrators similar assurances of Sino maritime perfidy. Yet since power flows from the barrel of a gun, as the Chairman himself once taught us, the Indonesian navy has not shied from seizing Chinese fishing vessels that have “veered” into Indonesian waters. With Jokowi having declared “war on illegal fishing” as a priority of tenets one and three of his international strategy—sovereignty and economic diplomacy—the seizure of illegal vessels operating in Indonesian waters must figure highly.
Though the vast archipelago is the second-largest producer of fish in the world, some 5,000 ships operate illegally in its waters every year, resulting in annual losses of some USD20 billion. In 2017 alone, the Indonesian navy sunk 128 illegal fishing vessels, part of a broader campaign under Jokowi’s leadership that has seen more than 300 ships accompanied to the bottom of the sea since he took office in 2014. Though most of these vessels hail from neighboring Southeast Asian states, in early December Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti was not loath to seize the 598-ton Fu Yuan Yu 831, a Chinese fishing vessel sporting a deceptive East Timor flag, backed up by Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino, and Singaporean flags for good measure—a display of regional solidarity illegal under international law—and the 35 tons of fish and protected tiger sharks it was hauling. Whatever the protests from Beijing, which are not likely to abate anytime soon, Indonesia is entering 2018 without pulling its punches.

Though Jakarta’s ties with Washington under President Trump are unlikely to be anywhere nearly as warm as they were under Obama, Vice President Pence still paid a visit in April. Coming on the heels of Trump’s oft-perceived “Muslim travel ban” and the president’s inclusion of Indonesia on a list of 16 “trade hit list” countries with surpluses vis-í -vis the US, Pence left with 11 bilateral economic agreements worth more than USD10 billion involving major American giants such as ExxonMobile, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric.
The low point for the two countries’ mutual ties would come in October when the US State Department, against the advice of the CIA, declassified 39 of 30,000 top secret US Embassy in Jakarta files documenting US knowledge of widespread anti-communist killings in 1965-6. Worse, merely 10 days later, the chief of Indonesia’s military General Gatot Nurmantyo was denied entry to an Emirates flight to New York to attend a counter-extremism conference at the invitation of his American counterpart, Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

Though the mistake was immediately rescinded and the general rescheduled to a later flight with apologies from the US ambassador, the damage had already been done. Within hours anti-American posters had sprung up around Jakarta, General Gatot’s nationalist credentials greatly burnished. As the Indonesian army said in an official tweet: “If you are looking for a leader, look for one who is hated or feared by foreigners, because such a leader will defend you from foreign interests.”

Despite these hiccups, Indonesia continued to strengthen its ties with neighboring Australia, Malaysia, and Japan. Though unable to finalize the much-heralded Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), a free trade pact before the self-imposed deadline of December 31, negotiators from both countries were optimistic it would come by spring 2018. Though bilateral trade has fallen from USD10.2 billion in 2012 to USD8.46 billion in 2016, IA-CEPA would rule out tariffs for 10,012 types of goods and presumably boost a lackluster balance that only accounts for 2.3% of Australia’s trade, despite being its closest and largest neighbor. Rumors are that Indonesia is wary of fully opening itself to Australian goods that might harm local markets, among them a strong push by Australia to open universities across the archipelago, and Australian paper dumping, for which lies an ongoing case against Canberra at the WTO.
With Malaysia, on the other hand, trade has seen a noticeable uptick to USD14 billion at YE2017, and was up 38% in the first five months of 2017 alone on the year before. Jokowi met with his counterpart Prime Minister Najib Razak to discuss how to resolve the countries’ 19 ongoing border disputes, whether by air, land, or sea. With a 2,000-km land border and much longer one by sea, hashing out a permanent deal is vital to both countries’ longtime stability. What’s more, both countries must also come together to address the EU’s likely plans to link palm oil production with deforestation, a legal move that would endanger the fate of Indonesia’s 17.5 million smallholders laboring in said industry and Malaysia’s 600,000. Following up on his second strategic promise, President Jokowi also addressed the urgent need to protect the rights and living conditions of Indonesian guest workers in Malaysia.

Relations with Japan also progressed. When former Prime Minister Fukuda visited Jakarta in October, he promised the two countries’ cooperation on major infrastructure projects would continue in earnest, whether it be the Patimban Port project, the Jakarta Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project, the Trans-Sumatran Highway, the northern Java railway, the Jakarta sewage development project, or the energy sector. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated that sentiment while also promising to enhance the Indonesian National Coast Guard’s ability to enforce its maritime law. Overall, then, whatever hiccups were seen with the larger Pacific powers of Washington and Beijing, Jakarta’s diplomatic leadership ensured that Jokowi’s tripartite priorities were at the front and center of his nation’s diplomatic efforts in 2017.

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