ON JUNE 23rd Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, flew to the Natuna archipelago in the South China Sea, along with several ministers, to hold a cabinet meeting on board a warship patrolling the surrounding waters. Only days earlier the same warship had fired warning shots at Chinese trawlers, detaining one of them and its crew, in the latest sign of escalating tensions in the area. Mr Joko, universally known as Jokowi, wanted to send a message to China.
Indonesian diplomats might once have registered their objections in private. But Jokowi has criticised China more openly than his predecessors. After one clash in March, when a Chinese coastguard vessel freed a Chinese trawler from the Indonesian patrol boat that had caught it, Jokowi summoned China’s ambassador for a scolding. The recent visit to the warship was Jokowi’s most public display of sovereignty yet.
It marks a sharp shift for Indonesia, which for decades positioned itself as a regional peacemaker. Unlike other South-East Asian maritime countries, it claims none of the contested rocks, reefs or islands in the South China Sea. China recognises Indonesian sovereignty over the Natuna islands themselves. But its “nine-dash line” overlaps with Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone surrounding the islands. Luhut Panjaitan, Jokowi’s chief security minister, says that the government’s position is simple: it does not recognise that claim. But Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer in government studies at Jenderal Achmad Yani University in Bandung, reckons Indonesia’s policy towards China still lacks clarity.
Indonesia’s foreign-affairs ministry cheerily insists there is no dispute, even as China’s foreign ministry referred to “overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests” in a statement condemning Indonesia’s actions during the latest skirmish off the Natunas. The thinking seems to be that acknowledging a dispute would both provoke China, which Jokowi sees as a crucial source of trade and investment, and lend credence to its claims. But Indonesia’s uncertain stance seems to be encouraging China to encroach farther into its waters.
Whether Indonesia’s armed forces are up to the job remains unclear. Although the country is building up its defences on the Natunas, Ryamizard Ryacudu, the defence minister, seems more preoccupied with fighting the phantom threat of homosexuals and others he imagines are waging a “proxy war” than facing up to the real risk of conflict.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts to check Chinese expansion have floundered. Earlier this month foreign ministers from the ten-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations—of which Indonesia is by far the largest member—issued an unusually strong statement expressing “serious concerns” over developments that “have the potential to undermine peace, security and stability”, only to retract it hours later.
On July 12th an international tribunal in The Hague will rule on a petition brought by the Philippines intended to show that China’s claims have no legal basis. Indonesia will be watching closely, and insists that the ruling be respected. Mr Panjaitan is proud of his country’s good (for now) relations with China. But, he says, “we don’t want to be dictated to by any country about our sovereignty.”