Indonesian presidential candidates dip toes in South China Sea issue during debate

Indonesian presidential candidates dip toes in South China Sea issue during debate

The Prabowo campaign has attacked Mr Joko Widodo for not knowing the stakes involved in the South China Sea dispute, after Mr Joko said in a foreign policy debate between the two presidential candidates that Indonesia had no quarrel with China in those waters.

Mr Ahmad Muzani, secretary- general of Mr Prabowo Subianto's Gerindra Party, said: "Jokowi doesn't understand the South China Sea, because we don't have a claim but there's overlap, the Natuna Islands are there."

He was responding yesterday to remarks by Mr Joko, commonly known as Jokowi, that the matter involved other countries and Indonesia would have to consider if its involvement might affect its ties with China.

The debate on Sunday revisited what observers see as competing pulls between the country's foreign policy establishment and the military over how to deal with growing Chinese assertiveness in these waters. Mr Joko showed a preference for a more diplomatic approach as opposed to the more nationalist Mr Prabowo, a former general whose opinion poll ratings are closing in on Mr Joko's ahead of the July 9 election.

Dr Rizal Sukma, an adviser to Mr Joko's campaign on foreign policy, said the attack on Jokowi's position does not reflect a deep understanding of the issue.

"China does not claim Natuna. Indonesia does not recognise the nine-dotted line," he said, referring to Beijing's historical demarcation of its maritime claims.

"If it does not exist, how could there be an overlapping claim?"

Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters yesterday that the government's position was, as Mr Joko had put it, that Indonesia does not have a territorial dispute with China.

Officials have, however, asked Beijing to clarify its nine-dash line amid concerns that it includes part of Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extending from the Natunas.

In recent months, senior military officials have also talked about beefing up Indonesia's presence in the region, given rising tensions in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Beijing claims territory in the sea also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, and its unilateral actions in recent months have drawn protests from the latter two countries. Indonesia has played an active role in trying to get other ASEAN states and China to agree to a code of conduct to mitigate tensions.

Bina Nusantara University international relations lecturer Achmad Sukarsono said both men had valid points: "From a territorial integrity point of view, China has claimed Indonesian space by placing the EEZ from the Natunas within its nine-dash line. However, China has also not shown any intention to take over the EEZ."

But Ms Mira Permatasari, an associate at the Centre for Asian Strategic Studies-India, said Jakarta has built a reputation as a trustworthy mediator because it was not a party to the conflict, and this could help resolve tensions.

During the debate, both candidates said they would continue to boost defence spending to secure Indonesia's borders, but place importance on diplomacy.

Mr Prabowo portrayed himself as a moderate, saying he would promote dialogue to solve disputes with neighbours as part of a "good neighbour policy".

However, he said the problem of strained ties with Australia was due to Canberra having "a phobia about us", while Mr Joko described tensions as due to a lack of trust, and said there should be more interaction between the two countries' peoples.

But Mr Joko also made clear he could not be moved on matters of sovereignty: "If it's a serious violation, don't think I can't be firm."

There are two more debates to come. Vice-presidential candidates Jusuf Kalla and Hatta Rajasa will face off this Sunday on education and human resources, and both pairs will debate food, energy and the environment on July 5.

zakirh@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 24, 2014.
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