Last updated: March 29, 2013 4:39 am

Indonesia protested over China passports

Marty Natalegawa©Getty

Indonesia has revealed that it protested to Beijing about China’s publication in its passports of its “nine-dash line” claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

Beijing’s decision to print the new map last year prompted protests from the Philippines and Vietnam, which also claim large parts of the South China Sea. India, which has a border dispute with China, also criticised Beijing’s move.

Marty Natalegawa, Indonesia’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times in an interview that Indonesia lodged a protest with Beijing several weeks after the new passports were issued,

“We said that usage of that passport should not be inferred as being a recognition of that claim,” he said. “We exercised nice low key diplomacy but getting our point across.”

At the time that the dispute arose last year, Mr Natalegawa said China’s move was “disingenuous” and that Beijing was “testing the water to see its neighbours’ reactions”, according to the Jakarta Post.

But Indonesia made no public statement at the time about the fact that the nine-dash line cuts through its Exclusive Economic Zone in the gas-rich Natuna Sea, where international energy companies such as ExxonMobil and Total are operating.

Indonesia has long tried to play down its territorial dispute with Beijing for fear of upsetting relations with China, which is a key trade and investment partner.

“We believe that by doing quiet diplomacy we get a better result,” said Evi Fitriani, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia. “So I'm quite surprised that the foreign minister admitted making this protest.”

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, a maritime security analyst at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Indonesia was reluctant to increase tensions with China for fear of inflaming public opinion and risking a damaging economic backlash from Beijing.

But he argued that there was an “increasing risk that Indonesia will be drawn into the fray” as China’s navy continues to grow at a much faster rate than Indonesia’s already inferior maritime forces.

As a thriving, young democracy and a member of the Group of 20 world’s largest economies, Indonesia is keen to play a more active role in regional and global diplomacy. But the rise of China and the recent US “pivot” to Asia have made it more difficult for Jakarta to maintain its traditional position of not aligning with any major powers while remaining friends with all.

“Indonesia is worried about China but they are more worried about being seen to be in any particular camp,” said a senior western diplomat in Jakarta.

Mr Natalegawa has spearheaded Indonesia’s rise on the world stage since he was appointed as foreign minister by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009.

“We’ve been trying to be the country that connects the dots and brings different elements together in an appropriate and measured way,” he told the FT interview, citing Indonesia’s efforts to convince southeast Asian nations to form a united position on how to resolve maritime disputes with China and to encourage the repressive military junta that ruled Myanmar until 2011 to open up.

But, despite his hopes for collaborative, multilateral diplomacy, the foreign minister accepted that the peace and stability that has allowed Asia to become a key driver of the global economy could come under threat because of the emergence of China as a major power.

“China’s rise, how it transpires, how it plays out, will really determine the state of the region, whether it’s part of the solution or part of the problem,” he said.

But, with some in Beijing fearing that the US rebalance toward Asia is designed to contain China, Mr Natalegawa warned that countries should be careful not to antagonise China unnecessarily.

“In Indonesia on the whole we see China’s rise as an opportunity rather than a threat,” he said. “It’s how we respond to it that could become a threat.”

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