Indonesian commander in chief of armed forces: China’s Dismaying New Claims in the South China Sea

The South China Sea has become the focal point of maritime disputes in Asia. Two of the claimants are China and Taiwan, while the other four—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While Asean as a grouping is not a party to the disputes, the organization has an interest in seeing them resolved peacefully and without affecting international freedom of navigation.

That is the crux of Indonesia’s position as well. We are not a claimant in a dispute. But we will be affected should conflict break out in the South China Sea over interpretations of the so-called nine-dash line on Chinese maps laying claim to about 90% of that sea’s 3.5 million square kilometer waters (or 1.35 million square miles). Given the economic and strategic significance of the sea, this is a pressing international issue that has come to involve the U.S. as well.

Indonesia is dismayed, therefore, that China has included parts of the Natuna Islands within the nine-dash line, thus apparently claiming a segment of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province as its territory. An image showing the line features in newly issued Chinese passports. The affected archipelago is off the northwest coast of Borneo.

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The Indonesian military has decided to strengthen its forces on Natuna. We will need also to prepare fighter planes to meet any eventuality stemming from heightened tensions on one of the world’s key waterways.

Militaries, in Indonesia as elsewhere, prepare for contingencies as a matter of course. What we are hoping for, however, is the ability of the region’s political and diplomatic leadership to negotiate a solution without the use or threat of force. In other words, we believe in a zero-war policy for the South China Sea, as we do for the wider Asian-Pacific region.

This policy reflects Indonesia’s key interests. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visualizes Indonesia’s foreign policy as being based on having a million friends and no enemies. In that spirit, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has conceptualized the doctrine of a “dynamic equilibrium,” which invites the major powers to participate in a cooperative framework on which an inclusive regional architecture can be built.

It is only within a cooperative architecture that Indonesia realistically can pursue a free and active foreign policy. Instead of belonging to a strategic camp, which might afford the country some security but at the cost of constraining its options, Indonesia wishes to preserve its strategic autonomy. Autonomy would enable us to lend our weight to international forces that enhance peace, stability and prosperity in the region.

We are not naïve. We know that the major powers must find it in their interests to keep the peace, and only then can peace prevail. I believe that it is in the national interests of China and the U.S. to cooperate in keeping the peace in the South China Sea and the Asian-Pacific region in general. Their bilateral relationship is so important, to them and to Southeast Asian countries, that it does not make sense to let the South China Sea issue drive them apart.

For China, its behavior in the South China Sea will define broader perceptions of its intentions as a rising power. A zero-war policy adopted by Beijing would give its smaller neighbors confidence that Beijing indeed does believe in peaceful development. An assertive China that rewrites the status quo through displays of military strength would have the opposite effect. Southeast Asian countries would not welcome the appearance of a sphere of influence in the region tied to the military rise and leadership aspirations of any country.

For the U.S., its approach to the maritime disputes will determine the credibility that it has with its allies and strategic partners. However, Indonesia certainly does not wish to see the evolution of an American policy that gives China reason to suspect the surreptitious creation of a coalition of countries aimed at encircling it militarily. Thus, it is important that the U.S. pivot to the Indo-Pacific does not translate into a sphere of influence that seeks to exclude China from regional affairs.

Concepts such as the balance of power, spheres of influence and buffer zones belong to the 19th century and the European model of great-power politics. Two world wars, the Cold War and the emergence of nuclear-weapons states are proof enough that those concepts contain the seeds of ruin.

A zero-war policy might appear to be excessively hopeful, but it is realistic. It serves the interests of Asia’s major powers by contributing to a benign strategic environment that allows them to grow together and to settle their differences through negotiation and compromise. Indonesia would throw its diplomatic weight behind the creation of an Asian order based on the rejection of the threat or use of force.

Gen. Moeldoko is the commander in chief of Indonesia’s armed forces.