Indonesian presidential candidates differ on South China Sea

Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

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Indonesian presidential candidates differ on South China Sea
One presidential candidate believes Indonesia should play a more active role, while the other says Indonesia should only meddle if it can effectively provide a solution

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Soothing tensions between fellow ASEAN member states and China in their territorial dispute over the South China Sea has been high on Indonesia’s foreign policy agenda. Indonesia’s two presidential candidates, however, don’t seem to agree on how to handle the issue.

Jokowi: Meddle only if we can help

Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the candidate of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), indicated on Sunday, June 22, that if he was elected, a slight step back from this policy would ensue. He said Indonesia should not meddle in the conflict unless it could play an effective role to resolve it through diplomacy.

“This is another country’s problem with another country. It is better if we can play a role, though we also need to check if it would sour our ties with China or whether we can find a resolution to the conflict,” Jokowi said in response to a question about his stance on the dispute posed by his rival, former 3-star General Prabowo Subianto, during the third presidential debate.

Jokowi stressed that Indonesia would mediate if “it benefits our friends in ASEAN.”

“If our diplomacy isn’t useful and can’t find the right solution, then what for?” he said.

Jokowi, a former furniture businessman and small-town mayor who rose to national fame as the governor of the country’s capital, was seen to be the underdog in the third presidential debate on international politics and national resilience. By contrast, Prabowo, from the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), is foreign-educated and was a high-ranking commander under former President Suharto.

The two starkly different figures have polarized a country that will elect a new president on July 9. The stance of Indonesia’s future president on the South China Sea dispute is of interest to fellow ASEAN countries that have a direct claim on the waters, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, as the country is the most populous and biggest economy in Southeast Asia. (Read: PH weighs proposed ASEAN meet on South China Sea)

Claimant or not?

Prabowo countered Jokowi during the debate, saying that some parts of Indonesia’s maritime territory are being claimed by “a certain country in the dispute.” It was an apparent reference to China, whose 9-dash line almost overlaps with Indonesia’s northern maritime frontier near the Natuna Islands.

“As far as I know, we don’t have a conflict in the [South] China Sea,” Jokowi responded.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa reiterated to journalists on Tuesday, June 24, that Indonesia was not a claimant state in the maritime spats and was not in dispute with China over the 9-dash line.

However, he added that it didn’t mean Indonesia was not affected. Since the 9-dash line edges southward toward the Natuna Islands, Indonesia is seeking a unilateral explanation from the United Nations on its legal basis.

“We are seeking the legal foundation, not the historical foundation, of this 9-dash line from the United Nations because it has the potential to generate misunderstanding,” Marty said.

Prabowo: We should play an active role

Bara Hasibuan, the spokesman of Prabowo’s campaign team, told Rappler that for the former general and his running mate Hatta Rajasa, even though Indonesia is not a claimant state in the maritime dispute, Indonesia has the responsibility to actively mediate the conflict.

“We have a direct interest in this issue. If the tension escalates, it would have an impact on our security,” he said.

Bara hailed the diplomatic efforts that incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been doing to push for the countries in dispute to conclude their negotiations on a code of conduct for the resource-rich South China Sea. He said Indonesia should push to expedite the talks.

“The South China Sea issue is a very important issue for us. Indonesia has the responsibility to continue and intensify our role. We need to maintain our active role in mediating the conflict, keep ASEAN united, and push for the signing of the code of conduct,” Bara said. He added that the 9-dash line claims should not be allowed to become a new conflict in the region.

In a followup televised debate session between the presidential tickets’ campaign teams on Monday, June 23, Jokowi’s advisor on foreign affairs and defense, Andi Widjajanto, reiterated the governor’s statement that Indonesia did not have any claims on the South China Sea.

“We don’t acknowledge the 9-dash line and, for us, it doesn’t even count as a dispute. By dismissing it, we don’t acknowledge that there is any room for negotiation,” said Widjajanto, whose late father Major General Theo Syafei was the head of the Megawati Soekarnoputri-Prabowo presidential and vice presidential bid in 2009.

However, Marty said that though it seemed the two candidates don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue, there was no substantial difference between their policies.

“They are complementary to one another. Indonesia’s diplomatic policy is to play a role in keeping with our capacity and potential to contribute,” Marty said. (Read: Indonesia rejects ‘military solution’ to sea disputes– 

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