After twelve years of talks, Indonesia and Vietnam settled their maritime boundary dispute on December 23. The agreement will quell long-standing tensions between the two countries. Unfortunately, it is likely to raise China’s ire. China claims part of the area that Indonesia and Vietnam had disputed. Indonesia and China decided their boundary dispute in accordance with the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), thereby rejecting China’s claim of “historic rights” to the area. The agreement is thus an important step towards a united front by China’s neighbors in the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in the South China Sea. The US should work with Indonesia and Vietnam to strengthen the deal. Doing so would support the US’s national strategy to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUU Fishing), and would also assert the rule of law in the South China Sea.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced the deal during Phuc’s 3-day state visit to Indonesia. The deal was part of a number of efforts towards greater cooperation between the two nations. The two leaders also announced plans to boost bilateral trade to $15 billion by 2028, up from $12 billion, and improved cooperation in defense, security, tourism, and education. Widodo and Phuc signed three Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) on energy and mineral resources, counter-terrorism, and countering the illegal drug trade.
The agreement will put to rest years of clashes in the disputed region, especially over the issue of IUU Fishing. Indonesia’s Coast Guard has confiscated and destroyed dozens of Vietnamese boats in the disputed waters, particularly surrounding the Natuna Islands. In 2017, a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship allegedly intercepted an Indonesian attempt to escort Vietnamese vessels from the disputed area, resulting in an Indonesian officer being detained by the Vietnamese Coast Guard. In April 2019, an Indonesian vessel collided with two Vietnam Fisheries Service ships. In 2019, Indonesia destroyed 38 Vietnamese flagged vessels that were allegedly fishing illegally. In March 2021, the Indonesian Coast Guard arrested two Vietnamese fishing boats. The boundary area is also presumed to be rich in natural resources.
Indonesia and Vietnam’s settlement is a clear rejection of China’s unlawful claims to the border region. The boundary region lies within the “Nine-Dash Line,” a demarcation dating back to 1940s-era Chinese Communist Party maps which serves as the basis for China’s claims to the majority of the South China Sea. The settlement will allow the two nations to maintain a united front in their separate maritime boundary disputes with China. The choice of UNCLOS as the basis for resolving the boundary dispute also implicitly expresses support for the 2016 South China Sea arbitration ruling, which held that China’s maritime claims against the Philippines in the South China Sea could not exceed UNCLOS boundaries, rejecting the Nine-Dash Line. Beijing has rejected the ruling as a piece of “waste paper.” Analysts believe that Indonesia and Vietnam’s settlement will pave the way for more of China’s neighbors to settle their overlapping maritime boundary claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam, for example, has similar disputes with both the Philippines and Malaysia.
To the author’s knowledge, the details of the agreement have not yet been made public. When they are, China will likely respond in strong diplomatic or even military terms to the agreement. Whenever a neighboring country has officially expressed support for the South China Sea arbitration, China has come out strongly against it. The Indonesia-Vietnam agreement also occurs at a time when China has been more aggressively asserting its claims to the South China Sea, passing laws to assert its jurisdiction over it, and demanding that other countries ask its permission to pass through disputed waters and airspace, sometimes endangering the lives of those who refuse to comply. At the border region between Indonesia and Vietnam, China may deploy its armed maritime militia, in the guise of fishing vessels, to stake its claim to the area.
The Indonesia-Vietnam agreement can serve as a model for coordinated efforts to counter China’s maritime expansionism, and is a step towards a united Southeast Asian front against China’s unlawful maritime claims. The US is well-poised to act to assist Indonesia and Vietnam in helping the agreement succeed. Vietnam is a priority state for the US Maritime SAFE Act, part of the US’s National Strategy to Counter IUU Fishing. This means that Vietnam has expressed willingness to act closely with the US to combat illegal fishing. The US should work with Vietnam and Indonesia to strengthen their agreement by providing training and assistance to the coast guards of both states to combat IUU Fishing and assert maritime rights against China. The US can also help conduct public information campaigns to raise awareness of the new maritime boundaries and the legal rights of both nations to the region. Additionally, the US can assist both nations in documenting and publicizing violations of IUU fishing by China in the boundary region, and taking legal action whenever appropriate.
At a time when China is acting more aggressively in the South China Sea, any tensions could easily erupt into clashes or worse. Unfortunately, this peaceful settlement between two neighbors may cause conflict with the imperialist next door. The US should act to bolster the Indonesia-Vietnam agreement and show its partner nations that it will stand beside them as China continuously attempts to violate their sovereign rights.