Why Indonesia is reaffirming its position on the South China Sea and turning down China’s offer for bilateral talks

Amid recent activities in the South China Sea, the Indonesian government has reiterated its position on the rule of international law addressed to the United Nations, while declining China’s offer to hold bilateral talks on overlapping claims.
In a diplomatic note dated May 26, Indonesia reiterated that it is not a party to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. “The nine-dash line map which China uses as a basis for its claims in the waters lacks an international legal basis,” it added.
Beijing responded by sending a diplomatic note pointing out that there is no territorial dispute between China and Indonesia in the South China Sea.
The note on June 2 said: “However, China and Indonesia have overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests in some parts of the South China Sea. China is willing to settle the overlapping claims through negotiation and consultation with Indonesia, and work together with Indonesia to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.” 
Speaking at a press conference on June 4, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi said the country’s position on the South China Sea is crystal clear and consistent.
She said: “Our diplomatic note to the UN on May 26 reiterated our objections among others to the so-called nine-dash line or so-called historic rights.
“In that diplomatic note, Indonesia also called for full compliance towards UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) 1982,” Marsudi said referring to the law which China has ratified.
Indonesia then issued another note on June 12, which rebuffed the offer of talks with the Chinese. “There is no legal reasoning under international law to conduct negotiations on maritime boundaries delimitation with China”, said the Indonesian note.
The note added: “No historic rights exist in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China. Should there be any historic rights existing prior to the entry into force of UNCLOS 1982, those rights were superseded by the provisions of UNCLOS 1982.”
In a press conference on June 18, Marsudi said that the June 12 note was meant to “further reiterate our consistent position that under UNCLOS 1982, there are no such overlapping claims”.
“For this reason, there is nothing to negotiate.”
This is not the first time Indonesia has sent diplomatic notes to the UN regarding the South China Sea as it has previously sent a similar note in 2010. Then, Indonesia also said that the nine-dashed line map has no legal basis.
International relations expert Teuku Rezasyah said: “I think Indonesia is quite confident in stating its position to the UN … This is the peaceful way of expressing concern, this is a diplomatic way of Indonesia’s positioning.
“Secondly, Indonesia needs to inform China that it is consistent … And to show its consistency, it is dealing with this issue on various levels, at the unilateral level, at the bilateral level, regional level and also global level,” said the scholar from the University of Padjajaran in Bandung city.
He also believed that Indonesia is strengthening its position.
“I think it’s about time for China to see how serious Indonesia is with its position. It has been doing that by integrating a seaport and airport in the Natuna, and it has redesigned its harbour there,” Rezasyah added.
Meanwhile, Security and defense analyst Yohanes Sulaiman said that in the current situation, “the diplomatic route is the best method Indonesia can use to reaffirm its position”.
“Being united with the other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states would also make Indonesia and the bloc stronger”, he said.
“I think it would make China think twice if Southeast Asian countries are united. And that is also the main reason why China always keeps claiming that any problem with the South China Sea should be solved bilaterally and not multilaterally.
“Because they don’t want the Southeast Asian countries to unite to challenge it,” said Sulaiman who is with the University of Jenderal Achmad Yani in West Java.
China claims much of the South China Sea, but there are overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Washington and its allies have also challenged Beijing’s territorial claims.
There have been recent signs of tensions in the South China Sea amid the COVID-19 situation. The US Navy said its guided-missile destroyer had sailed through waters near the Paracel islands, challenging China’s claim to the area.
There have also been reports that a Chinese government survey ship was “tagging” an exploration vessel operated by Petronas in the South China Sea.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for calm in the South China Sea and reaffirmed Malaysia’s commitment to peace in the disputed waters.
Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea but it has clashed with China over fishing rights around Natuna Islands, which is at the southern part of the disputed waters.
Last December, Chinese fishing boats and guards entered the Natuna waters and as a result, Marsudi summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta.
Indonesia then deployed warships and fighter jets to Natuna and after several days of stand-off, President Joko Widodo visited the area, followed by the departure of the Chinese vessels.
The incident was not new as Indonesia also clashed with China over fishing rights in the same region in 2016, which Indonesia subsequently renamed to the North Natuna Sea in 2017.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian military is mindful of the recent tensions in the South China Sea but has yet to deploy additional forces to Natuna.
The navy has around four vessels in the Natuna waters and the air force, as well as the army, have their personnel in the area, said Commander Fajar Tri Rohadi, a Public Affairs Officer with the First Fleet Command of the Indonesia Navy.
“We are still patrolling like usual, there’s nothing special about that. Having said that, we must always be alert. Everyone must be highly alert because we never know what will happen, especially in areas where there is something unresolved and (there are) mutual claims,” Commander Rohadi added.