Increased tension between Indonesia and China likely over ‘North Natuna Sea’


Is Indonesia becoming a maritime power?

On 14 July Indonesia publicly renamed the northernmost waters of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as the ‘North Natuna Sea’. This area overlaps China’s unilaterally-declared nine-dash line that covers the majority of the South China Sea, however, Indonesia does not recognise the Chinese declared territory as it partially intrudes into the Indonesian EEZ.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is seeking to transform the country into a maritime power and has increased Indonesian naval presence in its territorial waters. In 2014, the government launched a major crackdown on illegal foreign fishing and Indonesia subsequently intercepted a number of Chinese fishing vessels. Tensions became heightened in March 2016 when the Chinese Coastguard forced an Indonesian patrol vessel to release a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew who were caught deep inside Indonesia’s EEZ. The incident led to Indonesian naval vessels replacing maritime law enforcement vessels which Indonesia claims has deterred further forceful interference by China.

Indonesia-Japan discussions may aggravate tension with China

Indonesia is seeking collaboration with Japan to support the development of its coastal security and fishing industry. The November 2017 East Asia summit in Manila will provide an opportunity for Indonesia and Japan to agree on increased cooperation. This may aggravate tensions with China as discussions are thought to include plans for a coastal radar and satellite system capable of detecting foreign vessels, including Chinese vessels.

The North Natuna area is abundant in natural resources including oil, natural gas and fish stocks. Maintaining control over this region is strategically important and China has made efforts to expand its influence through the creation of artificial islands, some of which are used for military purposes. In an apparent counter move, Indonesia has also steadily increased its presence in the area through the expansion of a naval port, the deployment of naval warships and the lengthening of a runway to handle larger aircraft.

Indonesia has become emboldened by the Philippines’ success in an international arbitration ruling against China in 2016. The Philippines had renamed the waters closest to its shores and later took the territorial dispute before an international tribunal in The Hague. The court ruled China has no historic title over the waters in the South China Sea. It is foreseeable that Indonesia will pursue a similar course of action, as it does have the option of registering its claim with the International Hydrographic Organisation and the UN.