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Indonesian-Australian Patrols Proposal Follows Philippine Pivot to China: Analysts

Tia Asmara
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Indonesian President Joko Widodo greets Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Oct. 26, 2016.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo greets Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Oct. 26, 2016.

Indonesian security analysts are welcoming their government’s invitation to Australia to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea in an effort to boost regional stability.

The move reflects disappointment, they say, that the Philippines has cozied up to Beijing instead of using momentum from its recent international court victory against China to press it to resolve overlapping territorial claims in the strategic, resource-rich sea.

“The Philippines even appears close to China. If this can’t be resolved by the countries in conflict, there’s no harm in bringing in external countries like Australia, India and others, because all countries have legitimate rights in the South China Sea,” said Muhammad Arif, a South China Sea analyst at the Habibie Center, a Jakarta think-tank.

“It’s a good development in the long term because it shows that all countries have the right to sail the South China Sea,” Arif told BenarNews.

Ruling in July on a suit brought by the Philippines in 2013, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PAC) at The Hague unanimously dismissed Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea delineated by a nine-dash line on a 1940s-era Chinese map.

The court ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with fishing and oil exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese boats from fishing in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

But in his recent four-day visit to China, new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reportedly played down the tribunal decision and announced he was aligning his country with China’s “ideological flow.”

For the past several years, smaller countries in the region have helplessly witnessed China’s expansion into areas such as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan as well as the Philippines and China.

“This joint patrol is a good effort that can send a strong warning to China that they can’t impose their will in the South China Sea and create inconvenience for users of international sea lanes in the South China Sea,” Melda Kamil Ariadno, an international law expert from Universitas Indonesia, told BenarNews.

At the moment it’s difficult to halt Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea region, in her view – especially when the Philippine president appears to be supporting China.

“Coastal states can cooperate with user states, and Australia is the major user of the South China Sea,” Melda said.

‘Everyone’s natural resources’

On Oct. 28, following an international meeting in Bali, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said that Indonesia was exploring maritime cooperation with a number of countries and had proposed joint South China Sea patrols to Australia.

“Yes, right. That is the wish of the defense minister, he’s going to invite Australia to carry out coordinated joint patrols,” Defense Ministry spokesman Djundan Eko confirmed to BenarNews on Wednesday.

But it was too early to give further details as many parties still need to provide input on the matter, he added.

“With Australia [we] will also conduct joint exercises. There will be another meeting to discuss this matter, they agreed to the basic outline of it,” Ryamizard told reporters in Bali.

Indonesia, he said, did not intend to disturb its good relations with any countries in the region, including China. “We just want to secure the fish, everyone’s natural resources,” he said.

Indonesia has maintained a neutral stance for years on the simmering territorial disputes but has been drawn closer to the fray in recent months following repeated incursions by Chinese fishermen near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

In June, Indonesian President Joko Widodo held a cabinet meeting on a warship in the Natunas, in what some described as a “defiant gesture” to China following tense stand offs with Chinese vessels in the area in March, May and June.

Australian response

In Australia, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Canberra was considering Indonesia’s proposal for joint patrols, as it is aligned with Australia’s policy regarding freedom of navigation guaranteed by international law.

“We have agreed to explore options to increase maritime cooperation and of course that would include coordinated activities in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, “ Bishop told ABC Radio on Nov. 1.

“[T]his is all consistent with our policy of exercising our right of freedom of navigation. And that’s in accordance with international law and our support for peace and stability and security in the region,” she added.

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