ASEAN Chairmanship 2023: Indonesia’s Tendency to Solve the South China Sea Territorial Disputes

On 13 November 2022, the handover of ASEAN chairmanship from Cambodia to Indonesia was held at the ASEAN summit. Adopted the “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth” theme, Indonesia is responsible for one year of ASEAN’s chairmanship. At the ASEAN summit, Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia, said that ASEAN should be a peaceful and stable area and a presenter for global stability (Southgate, 2023). Some agendas should be a concern in Indonesia’s chairmanship. One of those is the issue that ASEAN has always faced: the South China Sea disputes. The conflicting claims of ASEAN’s countries’ sovereignty have worsened the relationship between China and ASEAN. So, how will Indonesia react while connecting the interest of Indonesia’s foreign policy?

Current Status of the Territorial Disputes in The South China Sea 

The status of the South China Sea remains uncertain. The claim of ASEAN countries’ seas has been seen as an insult to countries’ sovereignty. Criticization until objection to the nine-dash line as a legal argument by China has been an agenda by ASEAN countries for years. Other countries, such as the United States, have stated their position to object to China’s claim by rejecting the claim of Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia seas (U.S. Department of State, 2020). Other than that, the USA has expressed its concern about how unlawful the claims are and how China has violated international law (U.S. Department of State, 2020).

The tension between ASEAN and China has gradually increased due to this issue. China has increasingly put its efforts into reclaiming the land by expanding the size of the lands, military installations, and ports, especially in the Paracel and Spratly Islands (Center for Preventive Action, 2022). China also has militarized Woody Island with its jet, radar system, and cruise missiles (Center for Preventive Action, 2022). The Philippines, as one of the ASEAN members, has had a long-time dispute and negotiation with China. In reaction to China’s continued incursions into areas of Phillippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea, the Philippines has increased its military presence and gathered U.S. military assistance in the region (Gomez, 2023).

How about Indonesia’s response? The new demarcation exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between Indonesia and Vietnam will resolve the illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing (Strangio, 2022). This demarcation is also seen as an important step in settling maritime disputes in the South China Sea. In its ASEAN chairmanship 2023, Indonesia has also started a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea dispute (Reuters, 2023). This negotiation which has been ongoing for over 20 years, tried to be restarted by Indonesia. Even though the claim to proprietorship of territorial waters covers with Indonesian EEZ through the Natuna islands, Indonesia has frequently said that Indonesia is not a part of the South China Sea disputes (Pratama, 2023). Fact that China has sent a letter to stop Indonesia from drilling for oil and gas in Natuna and even sent Coast Guard to monitor it (Reuters, 2020), Indonesia reacted as if it is not an urgent thing. Indonesia responded and rejected the claim under the UNCLOS agreement saying that China’s claim had no legal basis (Reuters, 2020). While this scene happened in 2019, there are no further policies to China’s ego. This Indonesia’s silent treatment has indicated that Indonesia, with its interest in China’s policy, will not likely take serious steps to encounter China’s domination of the South China Sea.

Indonesia’s Current Foreign Policy: Tend to Align with China

A close relationship between China and Indonesia cannot be debated anymore. Under Joko Widodo’s chairmanship, a large investment cooperation called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has started. One of the most controversial projects, the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, is under the BRI investment (Fitriani, 2022). Electric vehicles, a lithium battery factory in Morowali, Jatigede dam, and other developments are also under the BRI investment (Fitriani, 2022). Other than that, the mining and energy industries receive the majority of Chinese investment in Indonesia. Indonesia had the most coal-fired power stations developed overseas by Chinese companies as of 2021. Besides, Indonesia and China are also good partners for their food security. The decision of Indonesia to ratify the China Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) shows satisfaction for China (Rahmat, 2022). The renewing agreement, Bilateral Economic and Trade Cooperation (BETC), that has been expired in April 2021, has also been an agenda of G20 between Indonesia and China (Rahmat, 2022). Based on these facts, it can be concluded that Indonesia’s interest has tended to favor China’s interest.

Even though its principle of foreign policy, “bebas aktif” (independent and active), it is understandable for Indonesia to align with the Asian superpower, China. It is logical and pragmatic because China offers more chances than other major powers and has become the main driver of global economic growth. Since the signing agreement of the Indonesia-China Strategic Partnership in 2005, China has become Indonesia’s largest trading partner. Moreover, China and Indonesia also have the highest import and export growth rates among ASEAN nations. According to the National Bureau of Statistics and China Customs, China and Indonesia’s combined import and export volume climbed from $66.234 billion in 2012 to

$124.57 billion in 2021, with a detail of USD 31.951 billion to USD 63.923 billion, Indonesia exported more goods to China. Other than that, through the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area, this bilateral trade has positively affected the expansion of some export commodities, such as palm oil and coal (Maria, 2022). The fact that both economies are complementary, with  China having advantages in manufacturing and technology while Indonesia is rich in agricultural and raw materials, has been seen as a bilateral mutual relationship. In the future years, China’s investment in Indonesia will keep increasing as it becomes a more significant trading partner for Indonesia. Therefore, it makes more sense to accept China’s emergence and work together to counter the challenges it poses than condemning it or excluding it, which will only feed great power rivalries that could jeopardize Indonesian interests in the long run.

During Indonesia’s presidency, ASEAN’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting ASEAN’s economic growth will be the main agenda for the 2023 chairmanship (Southgate, 2023). These objectives can be seen in its eight flagship events, of which the Trade Ministry of Indonesia is responsible for four. These four flagship events, The ASEAN Online Sale Day, the ceremony of the RCEP, the launch of the new ASEAN tariff finder, and also the Digital Economy Framework Agreement (DEFA) agreement (ANTARA, 2023), have been seen as a focus on promoting ASEAN’s economic interest and strengthening the regional organization’s relevance in the global arena. These agendas align with Indonesia’s concern about its economic policy and also strengthen its relationship with China.

What is next?

Indonesia’s ignorance of the South China Sea dispute and Indonesia’s foreign policy tendency to China’s cooperation leads the writer to one conclusion: Indonesia will not likely finish the disputes between ASEAN members and China on the chairmanship of ASEAN. The dependency on China will guide Indonesia to enhance its foreign policy on the economy,

rather than solving the South China Sea issue. Despite numerous concerns about the stability of the area, Sulaiman (2019) argues that Indonesia is not developing a coalition to counter China’s expanding dominance in the South China Sea or improving its ability to project power. Indonesia’s interest has fallen into China’s hands. The strategic culture that affects Indonesia’s military and foreign policy thinking on threat perceptions and economic considerations results in under-balancing conduct, which restricts Indonesia’s alternatives in relation to China. China as a state is therefore not regarded as posing a significant, direct, or immediate threat that would require a prompt response and could damage Indonesia’s more significant interests. Moreover, the writer believes that Indonesia maintains its stance in position: Indonesia does not think that the issue is urgent to solve. Indonesia’s government is ignorant enough about the issue and currently does not have any intention to make policies to counter the unilateral recognition. Indonesia also has not been damaged enough to shift its foreign policy for the security of sovereignty. Therefore, Indonesia’s interest in the mutual economic relationship with China has made stagnancy on the issue, even in Indonesia’s year of ASEAN chairmanship.

Through the article, the writer believes that the settlement of South China Sea disputes will remain stagnated, not much different from the chairmanship of Cambodia. The interest between Indonesia and China has gradually strengthened and will obstruct the settlement of the issue, including foreign policy tendencies and economic reasons. Thus, Indonesia should not get swayed by the mutual relationship but view the issue with an objective perspective. The ASEAN region has got threatened enough to create a project power to encounter China’s power. Therefore, Indonesia needs to balance the security danger that China poses in the South China Sea by taking necessary steps, especially in its ASEAN chairmanship in 2023.


About Writer

Jefferson Davids Soasa is an undergraduate in the department of International Relations at Universitas Gadjah Mada.



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