Indonesia has surprised regional security analysts by pursuing much closer cooperation between its coast guard and China’s. Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of Australian National University and the University of Indonesia examines the motives behind Jakarta’s gambit and the nature of this budding channel of communication with Beijing.
Showdown at sea: An Indonesian Navy vessel encounters a China Coast Guard ship running interference for a Chinese fishing vessel (Credit: TNI-AL)
In the past few months, there has been increased cooperation between the China Coast Guard (CCG) and both the Indonesian Sea and Coast Guard (KPLP) and the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA). In early December last year, during the “Vietnam Coast Guard and friends” meeting in Hanoi, the heads of the CCG and BAKAMLA met. Both parties reiterated commitments to increasing bilateral cooperation as part of the implementation of a memorandum of understanding between Indonesia and China to enhance maritime collaboration. In early February this year, as a follow-up, the Chinese ambassador to Jakarta visited the headquarters of BAKAMLA, a dedicated maritime patrol and rescue agency reporting to the president, to discuss these commitments further.
These exchanges between the two services have raised questions among Indonesian and regional security analysts who have expressed surprise at this budding cooperation, given the ongoing dispute between the two countries over their respective activities in the North Natuna Sea, the southernmost section of the South China Sea. In recent years, Indonesian maritime authorities have clashed with the CCG over China’s territorial claims which overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), including a mining area. As a consequence, in January, Indonesia sent a warship to the area to monitor the activities of a CCG vessel. The quarrel has only escalated with Indonesia deciding to expand its offshore energy exploration, dismissing Beijing’s nine-dash line reach as unlawful. Indonesia is not among the six parties officially engaged in the South China Sea maritime dispute, which include Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Is the growing relationship between the coast guards of Indonesia and China a rational choice for Jakarta?
Pursuing cooperation is the right path for Indonesia for three key reasons:
First and foremost, it is in line with Indonesia’s interests to protect its sovereign rights in Indonesian EEZ and to maintain peace and security in the region. It is for the good of the country never to have a confrontational relationship with China, which could destabilize the region. Increasing cooperation with CCG can provide a key channel of communication, particularly in the event of any maritime conflict.
Second, as the sitting chair of ASEAN, Indonesia is signaling that it is giving priority to the ongoing and longstanding negotiation of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC). For talks with Beijing to be productive, there should be active communication and relatively calm conditions in the South China Sea. Closer collaboration between KPLP/BAKAMLA and CCG could contribute to securing a peaceful environment for the CoC negotiations to continue.
Third, with the increasing geopolitical contest in the region between the United States and China, greater cooperation between KPLP/BAKAMLA and the CCG could be regarded as part of Jakarta’s efforts to balance its relationships with the great powers. Indonesia and the US have enjoyed close maritime security cooperation, including a joint United States Coast Guard (USCG)-BAKAMLA Maritime Training Center in Batam Island in the Riau archipelago. BAKAMLA officers recently completed boat operation training with the USCG. Indonesia has often reiterated that it will not take sides in the US-China rivalry and that it will balance its cooperation with the two, allowing it to benefit from its ties with both.
But going forward, enhancing the Indonesia-China coast-guard connection will pose many challenges. The heating up of the situation in the North Natuna Sea could make cooperation more difficult – or even bring it to an abrupt halt. The dispute underscores the Indonesian side’s lack of trust in Beijing. China is widely seen among Indonesians and among the country’s political and military establishment as a major threat, particularly in the South China Sea. Therefore, it will never be easy to forge a truly trusting relationship between the two countries.
Some of the commitments under consideration by the CCG and KPLP/BAKAMLA include cooperation on sensitive issues. During the Chinese ambassador's visit to BAKAMLA, he discussed with officials the importance of having an operational mechanism to prevent conflict. Other topics that have been discussed include maritime safety, marine scientific research, protection of the marine environment, fisheries and personnel capacity. It may be possible to work together at a fundamental, elementary level, building the trust needed to handle more delicate and complex matters for which cooperation would be difficult.
It is clear that coast guard collaboration will not resolve the long-standing tensions between Indonesia and China in the North Natuna Sea. This can only happen when China clarifies or indeed abandons its claim to the parts of the Indonesian EEZ within its nine-dash line. Without any resolution of this dispute, there will always be a limit to the trust that Jakarta would be willing to give to Beijing. As long as the “China threat” looms, Indonesia will always be concerned about the danger to its sovereignty.
That said, it is in the Indonesian interest to maintain peace and security in the South China Sea as well as to avoid any possible conflict and escalation with China. To ease the way for more effective negotiations of the CoC and other key security agenda items during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship, having a good relationship with China is crucial. Coast guard cooperation could be at least one helpful step in that direction.
Darmawan, Aristyo Rizka. (January 18, 2023) “Indonesia Pursues Offshore Energy Exploration Under China’s Shadow”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Darmawan, Aristyo Rizka. (September 2, 2021) “Do You Hear the People Tweet?: The Role of Social Media in Indonesia’s Foreign Policy”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Darmawan, Aristyo Rizka. (June 10, 2021) “Even the British are Coming: ASEAN and the Internationalization of the South China Sea”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan
Australian National University and University of Indonesia