China′s assertiveness draws Japan and Indonesia closer | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 25.03.2015
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China's assertiveness draws Japan and Indonesia closer

In a move widely viewed as a reaction to China's growing assertiveness, Japan and Indonesia have agreed to bolster defense ties. But can Jakarta also serve as a mediator in the region? DW speaks to analyst Zachary Abuza.

Seeking fresh investment from Asia's two largest economies, Indonesian President Joko Widodo recently finished a four-day visit to Japan, and will be headed to China from March 26 to 27, where he will meet President Xi Jinping and Chinese businessmen in a bid to bolster bilateral economic ties.

During his visit to Tokyo, Jokowi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe boosted bilateral defense relations by launching a high-level maritime security forum designed to enhance Indonesia's coast guard and infrastructure capabilities. Separately, Jokowi said that while China's maritime claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis in international law, Indonesia was committed to remaining an "honest broker" in the disputes.

In a DW interview, Zachary Abuza, an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security, talks about the key aspects of Jokowi's Japan visit, why Indonesia is seeking to boost defense ties and what role it can play in regional disputes in Asia.

Japan Indonesien Präsident Joko Widodo

Widodo seeks better economic and defense ties with Japan

DW: What were the key issues discussed during the bilateral summit between Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Indonesian President Joko Widodo?

Zachary Abuza: This was the first visit by President Widodo outside of ASEAN. That it was Japan and not China first, is a message in itself. The goals of the visit were really twofold: to deepen economic cooperation and to begin more meaningful defense cooperation.

On the economic side, President Widodo is keen to increase trade and investment. In 2013, Indonesia's exports to Japan were $27.1 billion. Although that was above imports from Japan, $19 billion, the rate of exports over the past four years had really slowed in comparison to imports.

For Indonesia, it's really important to diversify their exports beyond natural resources. Jokowi is also trying to increase Japanese investment in Indonesia, including a large investment from Toyota, as well as investment in the country's energy sector, which is really under-developed and a break on growth.

Finally, Jokowi is seeking Japanese investment and expertise in his Maritime Axis doctrine, a cornerstone of his economic program, in which Indonesia plans to develop 24 ports and deep water harbors, as well as ancillary industries such as fisheries processing centers.

President Widodo also set out to improve defense cooperation especially in the maritime domain. To date there is very little, just a single agreement on the exchange of military students. The two sides announced a "maritime forum" and enhanced cooperation between their respective coast guards. This is a very low-level agreement that does nothing to change the security dynamics of the region.

Why would Japan and Indonesia feel the need to collaborate on maritime security?

Because of the growing assertiveness of China. Absent of that, I don't think we would see the two sides moving as close on these issues. Indonesia's territorial dispute with China in the East Sea is parallel to the South China Sea dispute, in which China, through its 9-dashed line claims 90 percent. China's extensive and rapid reclamation projects on six features is really destabilizing. While Indonesia has not been as vocally supportive as Vietnam or the Philippines about Japan's increased maritime patrols in the South China Sea, tacitly, I think Indonesia welcomes them.

I have heard little if any criticism of Japan's more robust security posture under PM Shinzo Abe. In 2010, Indonesia sent a letter to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that "contested China's position on the South China Sea." China never replied nor has it clarified its position. While Indonesia is quick to downplay any conflict with China, the reality is China claims part of Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

What is this increased collaboration likely to look like?

It will begin with very low-level and non-controversial steps, primarily the development of Indonesia's coast guard. Indonesia has watched as Japan has transferred coast guard craft to Vietnam and the Philippines in order to develop their capabilities. Indonesia's maritime law enforcement services are spread across multiple bureaucracies and agencies.

The two sides need to act on putting into place baseline security agreements, such as for search and rescue, humanitarian assistance & disaster relief (HADR), as well as perhaps cyber defense. These would be the appropriate areas to begin more routine defense cooperation.

Indonesia's defense budget of $8.1 billion has grown substantially since 2004 when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and much of that was plowed into modernizing Indonesia's surprisingly weak navy, as well as air force. Although both are still undergoing modernization programs, they both remain quite weak.

What can Indonesia do to ease tensions over territorial disputes either in the East or South China Sea?

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (front) walks past China's President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, inside the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake, in Beijing, November 11, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Ties between China and Japan have been tense for quite some time

Indonesia often states that it is a "neutral party" in the South China Sea dispute and has stated its willingness to serve as a broker. But that's not really true. It does support a binding code of conduct, something that China says it supports but seems intent on never concluding.

Moreover, while Jakarta has no claim to any of the features in the South China Sea where China is doing its reclamation, the 9-dashed line, cuts through the EEZ of Natuna Island. Since 2010, Indonesia has asked China through diplomatic channels for clarification, and received no reply.

Indonesia has long indicated that it does not respect the legal basis of the 9-dashed line. Natuna is critical, as its offshore gas fields are some of the most lucrative in the country. In the past year, Indonesia has quietly been building up its military presence on the island. Natuna is quite far from the rest of Indonesia, and there is clearly growing concern about China's land-reclamation that will give it significantly more reach and permanent presence in the South China Sea.

The thing that you have to understand about China's reclamation projects, including port and airfield construction, is that they have very limited utility should fighting erupt; they are very vulnerable. And yet, short of war, they give China enormous capabilities to maintain constant patrols and exploitation of natural resources, while forcing other claimants out.

President Widodo has tried to walk back his comment made on Monday that he does not recognize the legality of China's 9-dashed line, which obviously displeased the Chinese leadership. Indeed, today, the Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi went even further denying that Indonesia had any overlapping claims with China.

Zachary Abuza is an independent researcher on Southeast Asian security and the author of "The Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand," published by the United States Institute of Peace.