indonesia south china sea

Written by Areej Haider 8:00 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

China, Indonesia, & the South China Sea Dispute

China has always maintained sovereignty over the South China Sea, which is rich in both oil and natural gas reserves. More so, its sea routes are critical for China’s maritime transportation. Interestingly, while China has never claimed Indonesia’s Natuna islands, it has also never clarified the meaning of the nine-dash line that overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Areej Haider is studying International Relations at National Defence University Islamabad. She has a keen interest in national and international politics, especially South Asian and Middle Eastern politics.


Located in a hotly contested region, the South China Sea is the heart of the current regional anxieties. Not just two or three, but almost six governments have made their maritime rights and territorial claims over certain Islands in the South China Sea. The South China Sea dispute is now a full-fledged crisis. The use of ‘crisis’ here is not to be taken lightly.

John Richardson in Crisis Diplomacy defines ‘crisis’ as “An international crisis is an acute conflict between two or more states, associated with a specific issue and involving a perception by decision-makers of a serious risk of war.”

The crisis has become internationalized amid serious risks of war. Long ago, little armed clashes among states could be ignored or underestimated, but the intensity of such risks has magnified in the contemporary world. The claimants of today possess better-escalating capabilities to wage war at and from the sea.

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Great Power Rivalries

While the United States is a neutral party in the dispute, it considers it to be a “national interest” worthy of defending by force, if necessary. Beijing, however, claims roughly 90% of the sea, a sub-total of 3.5 million square kilometers of area. The South China Sea conflict poses a geopolitical challenge of unprecedented magnitude—to Indonesia—so close to home.

Apart from the claimant states, certain non-claimant powers of the world have major geostrategic interests in the sea like Australia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Subsequently, bloc politics is mounting, and regional security is at high risk. The great power rivalries have complicated the issue.

The resolution of maritime disputes and harmonization of setting a peaceful future for the region has been challenging due to the multilateralism of interests of the states. Synchronized with its indifference to its neighbors’ grievances, China continues the world’s largest island-building campaign, in complete disregard for international law.

Significance of the South China Sea

The South China Sea previously only had a former politico-security dimension, but it has now crept into economic and demographic dimensions. Being the largest sea among the oceans of the world, the South China Sea is economically, strategically, and regionally very crucial not only for the claimant states but also for the non-claimant states.

Additionally, there are hundreds of small islands in the sea which are mostly uninhabited. Home to the world’s most important shipping lanes, the South China Sea borders China, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. The South China Sea accounts for at least a third of the global maritime trade. Its sea routes carried more than five trillion dollars in trade last year.

The US Energy Information Administration estimates that the South China Sea encompasses proven reserves of more than 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The South China Sea holds immense importance for China which is why it is denying territorial rights to other claimants.

It is important for the strategic patrol of Chinese nuclear ballistic missile submarines which need to enter the west Pacific Ocean against the US. Nonetheless, the South China Sea will serve as a buffer zone for China if the US conducts a military attack on mainland China.

Indonesia’s Interests

Indonesia is a non-claimant state when it comes to its role in the dispute. However, the main point of concern for it is the security of the Natuna Islands which hold great importance for Indonesia. China has never claimed the islands nor has it clarified to Indonesian policymakers the meaning of the U-shaped line.

The Natuna Islands are located in the 200 nautical miles of Indonesia and overlap with China’s nine-dash line from the southernmost side. Indonesia rejects the U-shaped line and claims to have neither territorial nor boundary disputes with China. However, it is concerned about Beijing’s assertive enforcement of the 9-dash line.

When China published its U-shaped line map again in 2009, Indonesia responded that China’s claim “clearly lacks international legal basis and is tantamount to upset[ting] the UNCLOS 1982.” Furthermore, Indonesia invited officials from other Southeast Asian states in February 2022 to discuss the possible collective response to be given against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

Accommodating and Confronting China’s Rise

No ASEAN leader adopted a more concrete stance over the South China Sea than President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who believed that his country only had two options: “We talk, or we fight. Philippines to fight China, it will be slaughter so we talk. We cannot match.”

Certainly, China is not proceeding with the possible solutions due to the threats posed by the US and its allies to contain Beijing from the Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean in the future. Most importantly, no claimant state feels confident enough that help is forthcoming when they must punch above their weight.

The events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean will determine the balance of power the in the Asian continent. Asia is facing power disequilibrium due to the regional insecurities in the South China Sea. In such a scenario, Japan and India can play an impactful role in promoting peace and stability in the region.

Above all, Washington will maintain US preeminence in the region to de-escalate the uneasy situation in the South China Sea. Doing so will demonstrate that the US can achieve its regional goals by employing a mixture of multilateral and unilateral measures. Even so, a stable and rule-based order is the need of the hour in Asia.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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