US, Indonesia to Cooperate in ‘New Ways’ in South China Sea: Pompeo

October 29, 2020 Updated: November 4, 2020

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday said Washington would find new ways to cooperate with Indonesia in the South China Sea and respected Jakarta’s efforts to safeguard its own waters while rejecting the Chinese regime’s unlawful claims in the area.

Pompeo’s visit to Indonesia comes amid a five-nation swing through South Asia, where he has sought to strengthen strategic and economic ties amid assertive behavior by the Chinese regime in the region.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a joint news conference with Pompeo that she “encouraged U.S. businesses to invest more in Indonesia, including for projects in the outer islands of Indonesia, such as in Natuna Island.”

Pompeo said that the United States welcomes “the example Indonesia has set with decisive action to safeguard its maritime sovereignty around the Natuna Islands.”

“I’m looking forward to cooperating together in the new ways to ensure maritime security and protect some of the world’s busiest trade routes,” Pompeo added.

“Our law-abiding nations reject the unlawful claims made by the Chinese Communist Party in the South China Sea, as is clear from Indonesia’s courageous leadership on the subject within ASEAN and at the United Nations,” Pompeo said.

Indonesia has repeatedly turned away Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels that have entered the North Natuna Sea.

This year, Indonesia rejected a U.S. request for landing and refueling rights in Indonesia for its P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that monitor China’s military activity.

In 2017 Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea in an act of resistance by Southeast Asian nations to China’s territorial ambitions in the maritime region.

south china sea
A Chinese coast guard ship (back) sails next to a Vietnamese coast guard vessel (front) near China’s oil drilling rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea on May 14, 2014. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP via Getty Images)

Indonesia’s rights to its maritime economic zone in the South China Sea are recognized by international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea signed in 1982 but China’s claims are not, Evan Laksmana, a senior researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, Indonesia wrote for The Diplomat.

China declared in 2009 to the United Nations that it has “historic maritime rights” to a U-shaped “nine-dash line” extending about 1,200 miles south of its mainland. China’s claims encompass 90 percent of the South China Sea and would take away huge swaths of Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei EEZ territorial waters.

In 2016 the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in Hague ruled unanimously that there is no legal basis for Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” claiming sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea by ignoring the exclusive economic zones of neighboring nations confirmed under the 1996 UN convention, wrote David Kilgour, J.D., a former Canadian Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and a senior member of the Canadian Parliament.

“The judges ruled that any historic rights China might have had were extinguished by the 200 nautical miles zones established under the UN treaty, Kilgour said adding that “By ratifying the agreement, the party-state in Beijing accepted the jurisdiction of the court.”

Economic Cooperation

Mike Pompeo and Joko Widodo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Bogor, Indonesia, on Oct. 29, 2020. (Courtesy of Muchlis Jr/Indonesian Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters)

Indonesia’s economic ties with China have increased at the same time Washington has considered downgrading Indonesia’s preferential trade treatment under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) facility.

That review is ongoing and Retno told Pompeo that the GSP facility “brings benefits” to both nations.

Pompeo met on Thursday in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. They discussed recent security developments across the Indo-Pacific and ways to enhance cooperation on maritime security, supply chains, and post-pandemic economic recovery, according to a State Department statement.

The United States has recently signed a bilateral infrastructure finance agreement with Indonesia that will attract U.S. private sector investment in Indonesia’s growing infrastructure, digital, and energy sectors “to meet Indonesia’s estimated $1.5 trillion infrastructure gap,” according to the State Department.

It is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation and is well-positioned—both regionally and globally—to serve as an example for others of religious tolerance, plurality, and inclusion, according to a State Department fact sheet.

The country is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the seat of the ASEAN Secretariat, a regional intergovernmental organization consisting of ten countries. ASEAN was established out of fear of communism among other reasons.

“Indonesia is a leader within ASEAN and an anchor of the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” the fact sheet said.

Indonesia is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council with its term ending in 2020.

Chris Street and Reuters contributed to this report.