Could US-Indonesia Cooperation End China’s Growing Aggression In The South China Sea?

The entire world is aware of China’s rising aggression and unilateral claims in the South China Sea region. While all countries are busy tackling the Covid-19 problem, China is continuing its military aggression in the disputed territory. 

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And it’s clear that China’s actions and unilateral claims are only to control the resources in the region. China has deliberately violated the existing law by carrying out many illegal acts. It tends to overlook the fact that Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia are the only nations that have legal jurisdiction over the region. 

Beijing has no coherent legal basis for its “Nine-Dashed Line” claims in the region since it was formally announced in 2009. It is a vaguely-located demarcation line used by China and Taiwan for their claims over the South China Sea.

As one of the major countries in ASEAN, Indonesia, strongly opposes China’s confrontation in the South China Sea, especially when at the end of 2019, China’s vessel trespassed in the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in Natuna.

On several occasions, China’s fishing boats were found entering the Indonesian territorial waters, escorted by China’s coast guard as reported by The New York Times. In addition, recently an illegal sea-glider drone allegedly belonging to the Chinese Navy was found by fishermen in the Selayar Islands, Indonesia.

Moreover, China has been aggressively building ports, military installations, and airfields, especially in the Paracel and Spratly Islands. It looks like Beijing is ready to fight against any country opposing its move even though it has no right over the region.

US Support to ASEAN Partners

Indonesia is currently continuing to encourage the completion of discussions about the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea with China and other ASEAN countries. But negotiations have been hampered due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The dispute should have decreased because of the pandemic, but China has instead shown military strength in the South China Sea. Before Christmas 2020, China and Russia held the second joint strategic patrol in the Asia-Pacific region. China sent four H-6K bombers and its ally Russia deployed two Tu-95 bombers, which were flown over the East China Sea area close to the South China Sea. This is a signal that Beijing could be serious about seizing the disputed territory

The US fully supports the rights and freedoms of ASEAN countries, especially in the South China Sea. Washington also opposes China’s behavior of trying to seize the region. By fighting for a free and open Indo-Pacific concept, the US is trying to secure the area ‘seized’ by China. 

For the US, maintaining the stability in the South China Sea — a major trade route — is important for balancing political, security, and economic power, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) Report, 2018.

As reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, every nation has certain rights and freedom over maritime areas, including cases in the South China Sea. The international community has a role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to the security, stability, and prosperity of the world. Therefore, the US came and supported ASEAN partners in the South China Sea disputes.

US-Indonesia Cooperation

The world acknowledges that Indonesia is a central figure in ASEAN. In the South China Sea dispute, Indonesia is not a claimant state. Four ASEAN member countries are directly involved as claimants: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Indonesia is a mediator and a force of stability in ASEAN. 

Indonesia can invite US cooperation with ASEAN countries to hold joint patrols in the South China Sea region. The joint military training activities that have been carried out by Indonesia-US in Natuna waters need to be carried out on a regular basis. This is to counterbalance China’s power in the region.

Indonesia should complete the deals for purchase F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Hornet fighters from the US so that the US-Indonesia defense cooperation gets a boost. Besides, the US’ moral support for Indonesia to take a firm stand on China and lead ASEAN could increase.

In terms of economic cooperation, currently, the influence of China’s economic dependence on ASEAN is increasing. A lot of trade cooperation is carried out by Southeast Asian countries with China, which makes them indecisive in their response to the South China Sea dispute. If this is allowed, China will have absolute control over the entire region.

Indonesia can become a trade leader to counter China’s influence. Economic cooperation with the US is the right step. So far, investors’ reputation from US companies in Indonesia is outstanding compared to those from China. If the US-Indonesia cooperation is strengthened, China’s influence in the South China Sea will be limited.  

(The author is a defense researcher at The Purnomo Yusgiantoro Center, Indonesia)

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