A small victory for rule of law in Asia

Indonesia’s protection of its waters from Chinese aggression sends yet another message to Beijing about the need for rule of law.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship is seen from an Indonesian naval ship in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone near Natuna Islands, Indonesia, Jan, 11.

In 2018, President Donald Trump challenged China to improve rule of law when it comes to handling intellectual property. After a long tariff “war,” he won an agreement with Beijing this week to better protect foreign patents in China.

In 2019, young people in Hong Kong took to the streets to preserve the territory’s legacy of rule of law from the kind of arbitrary law enforcement practiced in China. So far, they have won.

Now in 2020, it is Indonesia’s turn.

In early January, after dozens of Chinese fishing vessels and three Chinese coast guard vessels invaded Indonesia’s maritime economic zone – violating the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea treaty – President Joko Widodo went into action. He deployed naval ships and F-16s to the North Natuna Sea to confront China over its intrusion. He visited the area and boarded one of the warships. After a tense standoff between the two forces, the Chinese flotilla withdrew.

While China has intruded on the waters – and even islands – of other Southeast Asian nations, nothing has been quite as dramatic as this incident. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, now seems more determined than ever to stand up for rule of law on the high seas, and for good reason. With more than 13,000 islands, it is the world’s largest archipelagic nation. It depends on other nations to honor its territorial integrity for the welfare of its shipping and fishing.

After this confrontation, Indonesia plans to intensify its collaboration with other Southeast Asian nations to ensure China honors the U.N. sea treaty as well as a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that found China’s claims to much of the South China Sea to be illegal. It has also invited Japan, South Korea, and the United States to invest in its fishing industry to maintain a stronger presence around the Natuna Islands and to protect the country’s sovereign rights. Japan has offered to give three surveillance ships to Indonesia.

In its maritime expansion, China often overreaches, leading to close-call confrontations over islands or waters it claims. Among other nations in the region, the best defense so far has been to insist on enforcement of international law. The Law of the Sea treaty sets rules for nations to follow. Like the U.S. and the people of Hong Kong, Indonesia has won a key battle with China over rule of law. Such victories will only help reinforce the idea of world order relying more on agreed principles than on brute force.

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