Indonesia's media and South China Sea

The country’s media is shifting its coverage of this intractable dispute. It’s not good news for Beijing.

Indonesia's media and South China Sea AFP Photo/Indonesian Navy

The recent 50th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was portrayed in diverse ways within the media. Some reports, for example, highlighted the regional grouping’s potential power and influence. However, obstacles remain to cooperation and cohesiveness among Asean’s 10 member states. AInstead of highlighting trade, partnerships and fruitful outcomes, this essay examines the struggles likely to occur in Southeast Asia among the active players in the region.

What Asean members should strive for is not stability, but trust. Unfortunately, trust has been absent. Without trust, can we still enhance cooperation and communication? It is possible, but such relations with and beyond Asean will be limited. When it pertains to economics and business between Asean nations and China, the tone of media stories is predominantly positive. On the other hand, the media tends to take a negative tone in stories about security and politics. A primary example of Asean’s public cohesiveness failure was the response – or lack thereof – to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in 2016 against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea disputes are undoubtedly the elephant in the room. During a round-table discussion by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta last July, Chinese academic Yan Xuetong said that Asean-China relations were strong. However, if we look back to the first year of President Joko Widodo’s administration, there was a shift in media perspective. Between October 2014 and October 2015, the South China Sea issue was an infrequent topic of coverage among the Indonesian media. However, Indonesia’s position in the disputed maritime region changed in 2016, from a peaceful assessment to a wary position of protecting its own interests – by force if necessary – while at the same time not directly antagonizing Beijing, following a series of naval clashes between the two nations.

An article published last year titled “Indonesian Mainstream News Coverage of the South China Sea Disputes: A Comparative Content Analysis,” for which I provided the descriptive statistics, found that 60 percent of 192 news articles on the subject from five mainstream Indonesian media companies were in their respective international sections. Prior to this, in 20014 and 2015, conflicts between China and Indonesia were seldom mentioned. Rather, this can be considered a delightful bilateral period, including Indonesia’s decision to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure

After the series of naval incidents in 2016, the Indonesian media began to push the national government to be more assertive over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, in particular with Beijing.

Investment Bank and hire a Chinese company to partner in a high-speed train project between Jakarta and Bandung, the capital of West Java Province.

In the first year of President Joko’s administration, the Indonesian media portrayed Indonesia-China relations in a positive light as both countries had congruent objectives, such as Joko’s Maritime Axis policy and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road initiative. Building ambitious infrastructure projects was in both countries’ interests.

Prominent roles?

Although most news stories about Indonesia and international events are published in the international sections of various print and on-line media, the Indonesian media these days tends to use Indonesians as primary sources, and in doing so raises questions about the lack of international sources.

Between 2014 and 2016, the Indonesian media mostly published statements from Indonesian sources. State institutions such as the Presidential Palace and government ministers were relentlessly dominant. Officials from the executive, legislative and judiciary branches comprised 58 percent of sources during Joko’s first year in office and 64 percent in his second year. The two officials most cited were, interestingly, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti. From 312 news articles examined during Joko’s second year in office, the number of military officials quoted as sources increased from 11 percent to 15 percent. This made Indonesia’s Armed Forces the second-most quoted official state source, dominated by supreme commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, who is widely believed to have political aspirations after his upcoming retirement.

Meanwhile, the second highest percentage of sources came from China, at 19 percent. China can be considered as the most aggressive player in the region. Other non-Indonesian sources cited were Taiwan and Australia (both at 17 percent), the United States (16 percent) and Asean nations (13 percent).


 From politics to defense

In the information age, countries are cognizant that events reported in the media can affect public awareness and attitudes, and as a result official policies. It may not always be the case, but media coverage can create agendas or perceptions, and thus play a role in Asian politics and diplomacy, and how governments react and respond.

After the series of naval incidents between Indonesia and China in 2016, the Indonesian media began to push the national government to be more assertive over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, in particular with Beijing. The issue turned from one of politics to national security, and the Indonesian media shifted from neutral to openly questioning China’s claims.

The Joko administration during 2016 is particularly intriguing to explore. Tensions in the South China Sea had escalated. First, the Indonesian Navy caught Chinese fishing boats within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the boats were within their traditional fishing grounds. This was the first time Beijing acknowledged that its so-called nine-dash line overlapped with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. Second, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China, raising tensions all around the region. Third, the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, picked fights with the United States and played down the court ruling while cozying up to Beijing.

In the aftermath, the cohesion of Asean members in tackling maritime disputes has been tested. Outside parties such as the United States have regularly sent warships to project military power and reinforce the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Taiwan, Australia and Japan garnered more attention, even as nonclaimant parties in the South China Sea dispute. Meanwhile, China opened atolls and reefs under its control as tourist attractions for Chinese citizens.

In 2016, The Jakarta Post (54 percent of the time), Jakarta Globe (65 percent) and BBC Indonesia (66 percent) used neutral or positive language when mentioning Asean and the United States in coverage of the South China Sea disputes, while China was portrayed in a less positive light. This data is supported by research conducted in 2017 by Bradley C Freeman, associate professor at the American University in Dubai. During Joko’s first year in office, the coverage was more neutral. In addition, local media coverage in 2015 spun the South China Sea issue in more political terms (45 percent of the time), while the following year it was painted more in national defense terms

 (nearly 50 percent of the time). For its part, Beijing has utilized the “other”

Although four of the six claimants in the South China Sea dispute are Southeast Asian countries and Asean members, they are no longer the main actors on the stage.

trope in its media coverage, as seen in the next chart, specifically, travel to disputed areas, which is a well-known propaganda strategy by China.

Has Asean lost its own stage?

Another imperative dimension of the South China Sea issue is the main actors in the disputes. Although four of the six claimants are Southeast Asian countries and Asean members, they are no longer the main actors on the stage. Although parts of the South China Sea might be referred to by different names in Southeast Asia –the East Sea by Vietnam; the West Philippine Sea by the Philippines; and the North Natuna Sea by Indonesia – the media has shifted its focus to China rather than Asean.

During the first year of President Joko’s administration, in 2015, most of the dominant actors were categorized as “subject mentioned” in the press. This category refers to the number of times Indonesia, the Asean grouping, China and the United States are mentioned as subjects in news stories. The results found that Indonesia was the most mentioned (33 percent), followed by China (28 percent). Asean came in third (aggregating the mentions of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei) with 22 percent, and the United States was fourth with 18 percent.

However, the trend shifted from Indonesia toward China in the second year of Joko’s administration, in 2016, showing which participants were deemed more important by the Indonesian media. China came in first with mentions 42 percent of the time in monitored news stories, while Asean was second with 24 percent. The United States, the only nonclaimant state that is a key actor in the region, was mentioned 12 percent of the time.

Various regional incidents including illegal fishing, sovereignty violations, China’s massive reclamation projects and military deployments, may affect how Indonesia’s mainstream media covers the South China Sea issue during the Joko administration.

Beyond conflict

Forging an identity for Southeast Asia has always been challenging. Without an identity as a united Asean community, bilateral relationships will be the ones that are most rational. Economic cooperation can function irrespective of a regional identity – like choosing the best trade partner – but this can potentially damage trust-building among the collective Asean community. These types of relationships may address the interests of individual nations, but not potential conflict in the South China Sea, the Rohingya refugee crisis or terrorism.

This region’s interests are determined by the identity we build as a community. For instance, this identity can be projected into the South China Sea disputes. Internal disagreements and conflicts within Asean may only increase the potential for conflict with China or other nonclaimant countries, such as the United States, Japan, Australia and Taiwan. No wonder Southeast Asia is coveted by both Washington and Beijing.


Lupita Wijaya is a lecturer at Universitas Multimedia Nusantara in Tangerang, Indonesia.

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