Indonesia`s media and the South China Sea
January-March 2018
By: Lupita Wijaya

The recent 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was portrayed in diverse ways within the media. Some reports, for example, highlighted the regional grouping’s potential power and influence. However, obstacles remain to cooperation and cohesiveness among Asean’s 10 member states.

Instead of highlighting trade, partnerships and fruitful outcomes, this essay examines the struggles likely to occur in Southeast Asia among the active players in the region.

What Asean members should strive for is not stability, but trust. Unfortunately, trust has been absent. Without trust, can we still enhance cooperation and communication? It is possible, but such relations with and beyond Asean will be limited. When it pertains to economics and business between Asean nations and China, the tone of media stories is predominantly positive. On the other hand, the media tends to take a negative tone in stories about security and politics. A primary example of Asean’s public cohesiveness failure was the response – or lack thereof – to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea disputes are undoubtedly the elephant in the room. During a round-table discussion by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta last July, Chinese academic Yan Xuetong said that Asean-China relations were strong. However, if we look back to the first year of President Joko Widodo’s administration, there was a shift in media perspective. Between October 2014 and October 2015, the South China Sea issue was an infrequent topic of coverage among the Indonesian media. However, Indonesia’s position in the disputed maritime region changed in 2016, from a peaceful assessment to a wary position of protecting its own interests – by force if necessary – while at the same time not directly antagonizing Beijing, following a series of naval clashes between the two nations.

An article published last year titled “Indonesian Mainstream News Coverage of the South China Sea Disputes: A Comparative Content Analysis,” for which I provided the descriptive statistics, found that 60 percent of 192 news articles on the subject from five mainstream Indonesian media companies were in their respective international sections. Prior to this, in 20014 and 2015, conflicts between China and Indonesia were seldom mentioned. Rather, this can be considered a delightful bilateral period, including Indonesia’s decision to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and hire a Chinese company to partner in a high-speed train project between Jakarta and Bandung, the capital of West Java Province.

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