On the occasion of Indonesia’s 71st anniversary of independence in August 2016, President Joko Widodo announced that the country would continuously and actively encourage the settlement of disputes in the South China Sea through peaceful negotiations. This came just days after the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, rejecting China’s expansive maritime claims in the region. Even before this ruling, President Joko argued at the 2015 Asia-Africa Summit in the West Java capital of Bandung that that world needed a new perspective on the global economy in the 21st century.
Indeed, but how, specifically, should Indonesia focus and respond to the new geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape in the Asia-Pacific and beyond?
This essay argues that Indonesia must preserve an assertive “free and active” foreign policy that focuses on and responds to the new landscape. Indonesia has already played an active role, together with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in pushing for a code of conduct in the South China Sea for Asean member states and China. The crucial aim of the agreement is to preserve stability and create an open and peaceful maritime region for all parties. Economics will be a big part of this, given various new initiatives in the Asia-Pacific, including the (possibly dead) Trans-Pacific Partnership and the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The geopolitical situation
Indonesia can be more active in supporting peace and stability in the region’s waters. It appears to be viewed as a possible mediator acceptable to South China Sea claimants including the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and China, given that President Joko asserts that Indonesia is not a party to the dispute despite three naval skirmishes with Chinese vessels inside Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands in 2016. The most notable incident involved the Chinese Coast Guard ramming a Chinese fishing boat confiscated by Indonesian authorities and retaking possession of the vessel.