The year has begun with the maritime equivalent of a Doklam, a stand-off off near the Natuna islands of Indonesia. Over the past few weeks, Chinese coast guard vessels have escorted dozens of their fishing boats into the exclusive economic zone around the Natunas. Natuna represents the southern edge of the South China Sea dispute between China and a number of Southeast Asian nations. Indonesia deployed warships, submarines and fighters until the intruding vessels pulled back. Beijing blandly noted Jakarta should keep in mind the bilateral relationship, underlining Beijing’s importance.
China has sent a clear message for the new year and one of which India would do well to take note. Namely, that its economy may be slowing and its relations with the United States fragile, but there will be no let up in Beijing’s assertion of its territorial claims, whether on land or sea. Implicit is that kowtowing on territory means an acceptance of China’s pre-eminence in Asia. The sense is that China will push the envelope with most of its neighbours this year. It has not provoked Indonesia to such an extent since 2016. After a few years of stasis, Beijing has begun escalating its intrusions over the Senkaku Islands, the heart of a Sino-Japanese sovereignty dispute. Arguably, the hardline it took on Indian requests for import safeguards was ultimately an attempt to force India out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Beijing is starkly unconcerned whether such actions affect its international image or spur anti-Chinese sentiment.
Malaysia, last month, filed new maritime territorial claims with the United Nations (UN), immediately triggering a response from Beijing. Indonesia has similarly invoked the UN Law of the Seas as part of a concerted use of lawfare to hem in China. However, given the hard-nosed nature of Chinese statecraft, there continues to be a need for India, Indonesia and Japan to keep their powder dry. New Delhi has rightfully prioritised the scaling up of relations with Indonesia and Australia, two mid-level Indian Ocean players. Such countries should also consider being more vocal in stating their concerns and declaring their support for each other when China pokes one or the other. Jakarta had nothing to say when the Doklam crisis happened. New Delhi was silent over the Natuna standoff. States should publicly express their concerns about these inter-related, international incidents.