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Indonesia: We, Too, Could Take China to Court over South China Sea

Indonesia’s defense chief told reporters Wednesday that it, too, may take China to court over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, following the Philippines’ request for the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to address the matter. The Hague has accepted the petition.

“We would like to see a solution on this in the near future through dialogue, or we could bring it to the International Criminal Court,” Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan said, despite Indonesia not being a party to the major territorial disputes in the region. Media outlets note that the International Criminal Court could not see such a case as it only prosecutes individuals, not states, and only sees cases in which crimes against humanity, war crimes, or genocide are alleged. As both the ICC and the Permanent Court of Arbitration are located in the Hague, it is believed Panjaitan meant the latter.

The South China Sea dispute has already reached the Hague. The Philippines has submitted the case to the court, which accepted it and will hear the case between November 24-30. The Chinese government has rejected the Hague’s jurisdiction and is ignoring the case entirely, demanding that the Philippines resolve the diplomatic dispute single-handedly. “The person who caused the problem should solve it,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters during his visit Wednesday to Manila.

The Philippine government has rejected China’s dismissal of their case. “China’s nine-dash line claim is expansive, excessive and has no basis under international law,” foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose asserted.

Indonesian leaders appear to support the Philippines’ claim. “We don’t want to see any power projection in this area. We would like a peaceful solution by promoting dialogue,” defense chief Panjaitan told reporters. “The nine-dash line is a problem we are facing, but not only us. It also directly [impacts] the interests of Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines.”

The “nine-dash line” is a term the Chinese government uses to describe the border it has imposed between allegedly Chinese waters and other countries. It places a number of territories and maritime resources considered by the international community to be shared into exclusive Chinese territory, including the hotly-contested Spratly and Paracel Islands and a number of reefs and fishing grounds. No other nations have accepted the nine-dash line as a legitimate national border.

Indonesia does not claim to control any territory within the nine-dash line, though it gets close to the border. The Natuna Island archipelago lies some miles southwest of the nine-dash limit, but is close enough to cause some alarm, particularly among locals. “We need to add more forces here. We shouldn’t wait till something happens before we add more men,”  Bambang Hendratno, a senior Indonesian military official stationed in Natuna told the BBC in October 2014. “We’ve seen Malaysia and China already get into scuffles over competing claims. Before something happens we should act – rather than after something happens.”

The BBC estimates that “billions” in oil, fishing, and other natural resources are at stake in Natuna.

The Chinese government has responded to these concerns by asserting that it does not claim sovereignty over Natuna and, thus, has no territorial disputes with the government of Indonesia. The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed their lack of contention in Natuna following a statement by the Indonesian Foreign Ministry demanded the Chinese government issue “clarification” on its territorial claims.

“The position of Indonesia is clear at this stage that we do not recognise the nine-dash line because it is not in line with … international law… We asked for clarification on what they mean and what they mean by the nine-dash line. That has not been clarified,” Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Armanatha Nasir said. Nasir reiterated during a press conference Thursday both that “we are not a claimant state and we don’t recognise the issue of the nine-dash line, which we have made clear to China.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that Indonesia is also seeking to involve another non-claimant actor in the South China Sea dispute more intently: the United States. The government has requested aid from the U.S. to strengthen its coast guard, apparently fearing the potential of an emboldened China expanding its claims.

The United States has actively challenged China’s claims by navigating the waters without China’s consent. The Chinese government issued a series of livid statements against the American navy in late October after the USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter responded by personally boarding the USS Theodore Roosevelt and sailing in the South China Sea along with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

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