China’s behaviour in the South China Sea is beginning to resemble that of the imperialist great powers it once condemned. Its fishing boats are now intruding regularly into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Island group at the southern end of the South China Sea, jeopardising relations with Southeast Asia’s largest state and directly challenging the rules based order which Australia supports.
Indonesia has enjoyed excellent relations with China, priding itself on playing the role of an honest broker on the South China Sea dispute in the mistaken belief that it has no territorial differences with China. This belief has been rudely shattered by the aggressive behaviour of encroaching Chinese fishing vessels and protecting paramilitary ships.
Those who dismiss the South China Sea dispute as a storm in teacup, or persist with the illusion that China will refrain from antagonising non claimant states, need to think again. Far from de-escalating, this dispute is showing all the hall-marks of becoming the most serious security problem for Southeast Asia and Australia since the Vietnam War. And it begs the question of what the incoming government will do about it now that Indonesia has been drawn into the fray.