Skip to content

China And Indonesia Are Feuding Over Territorial Waters

January 13, 2020

Via Indonesian media.

The largest member of ASEAN has joined the multiple claimants wrangling over the South China Sea. When President Joko Widodo made a highly publicized visit to a naval base in the Riau Islands on January 8, a Wednesday, his trip coincided with an ongoing show of force by the armed forces or TNI. Widodo’s appearance came after weeks of illegal activities by a Chinese flotilla that entered the North Natuna Sea in mid-December. Since then the local authorities struggled to defuse the situation. Indonesian officials remained cautious when discussing the issue with the press despite months of evidence that Chinese fishermen were poaching in national waters.

Indonesia legalized its ownership of the North Natuna Sea and the archipelago spread across it in 2017. There were no regional dissenters to the announcement by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs at the time although Chinese state media did publish comments that rubbished the move. Whether the North Natuna Sea infringes on the South China Sea is contentious and moot–China’s sovereign rights to the body of water is non-existent. This fraught state of affairs has left a creeping territorial dispute that leaves the ASEAN members involved trying to assert their claims without antagonizing China.

Given its sizable trade relations with China and its lack of regional leadership Indonesia has embraced the same stance. But this non-confrontational approach unraveled in the beginning of this year when bolder assurances were made by the Indonesian government that Chinese ships in the North Natuna Sea had no right to be there. By the time Widodo visited on January 8 the air force or Angkatan Udara assigned four F-16C/D’s to its nearest airbase in the Natunas and tasked these with aggressive patrolling. Indonesia’s navy, the Angkatan Laut, sent eight surface vessels committed to patrolling the North Natuna Sea.

To bolster the military’s efforts Indonesian fishermen sailed in the Natunas as a show of force against the Chinese, whose several dozen vessels were engaged in poaching. The firm response by Jakarta had the desired effect and Chinese fishing vessels and their suspicious “Coast Guard” escorts withdrew although further sightings were made days later, albeit on the Natuna’s periphery.

China’s extraterritorial claims over its southern waters dates to revisionist maps published in the middle of the 20th century. Of course, this was before the Communist Party took power in 1949. By the 1970s Beijing’s encroachment over the islets known as the Paracels embroiled the Republic of Vietnam. Beijing and Hanoi almost fought a war in the 1980s over the resource rich Spratlys near the Philippines. It was in the 2010s when Beijing revived its “Nine Dash Line” concept to justify the territory it was annexing from at least four ASEAN members. The likeliest reason for Beijing’s aggressive push for naval control is to build strategic depth that negates the First Island Chain (the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan) constraining its military.

Now embroiled in a new Cold War against multiple rivals, Washington, DC along with its NATO and Indo-Pacific allies have negated the Nine Dash Line, with the US Navy making a point to sail in the South China Sea when it can, the PLAN exercises de facto control over the area with its bases in the Spratlys. As of this writing the long-term strategy motivating China’s move toward the North Natuna Sea isn’t discernible yet even if it suggests the PLAN’s quest for greater regional supremacy.

Comments are closed.