KUALA LUMPUR — Indonesia has sent an armada of warships and fishermen to waters around its northern Natuna Islands in response to recent incursions by dozens of Chinese fishing boats and coastguard ships.
China’s sweeping claim to most of the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesian waters around the Natunas, with the latest flare-up prompting the usually soft-spoken Indonesian President Joko Widodo to bluntly assert that “Natuna is Indonesia” during a visit to the contested region last week.
Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, through which between US$3-5 billion worth of trade passes most years, extends 2000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland and has angered neighbouring countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, whose own smaller claims around the sea overlap with Beijing’s.
While Indonesia claimed on Thursday that most of the Chinese boats left the Natuna waters – which Beijing regards as part of its “traditional fishing grounds” but which Indonesia renamed the North Natuna Sea after a similar stand-off in 2016 – several of the vessels were later tracked to a Vietnamese-claimed part of the South China Sea.
China’s claim to the South China Sea was dismissed by an international tribunal in 2016, though Beijing has ignored the ruling. US ally the Philippines, which took the case, has not followed up on its legal win – seemingly in the hope of attracting Chinese investment. In contrast, Vietnam has in recent months been protesting Chinese attempts to block offshore oil and gas exploration in disputed South China Sea waters.
In what looked like a hint to China that Southeast Asian countries could band together over the disputed sea, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi commented on Twitter on Thursday that she “had a phonecall” with her Vietnamese counterpart.
Describing China’s incursion into Indonesian waters as “a major escalation,” Nguyen Khac Giang of the Viet Nam Institute for Economic and Policy Research said “the new aggressive actions of Beijing over the waters close to Malaysia and Indonesia might help form a closer group of SCS [South China Sea] claimants against China’s hegemonic ambitions.”
Allegations of Chinese “militarisation” have raised tensions with neighbours and with the US, which regularly undertakes so-called “freedom of navigation” patrols through what it regards as international waters, putting the Chinese and American navies within firing distance of each other and heightening fears of a superpower clash. China has built seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, part of what Beijing calls “necessary defence facilities.”
Rising tensions with China could also have domestics repercussions in Indonesia, where almost 90% of the country’s 270 million people are Muslim. Hundreds of Indonesians protested in late December outside the Chinese embassy in Jakarta over Beijing’s treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang in western China.
Around 2-3% of Indonesians are of Chinese descent, a minority that has suffered official discrimination and episodes of mob violence in recent decades. While no threats have been made against Chinese-Indonesians over the latest disputes, “that could change” should Islamists try to link Xinjiang with the maritime stand-off, according to Alexander R. Arifianto, an Indonesian politics analyst at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Jakarta is likely to tread carefully with its giant neighbour and biggest trade partner, as President Widodo has been courting Beijing’s help in revamping Indonesia’s infrastructure, Among the projects in the pipeline are a high-speed train linking Jakarta to the city of Bandung and plans to build a new administrative capital on the Indonesian part of Borneo island.
On Tuesday China’s foreign ministry said “we believe Indonesia will also bear in mind the bigger picture of bilateral relations and regional stability, properly resolve differences with China.”
Luhut Pandjaitan, the Indonesian minister responsible for maritime affairs and Chinese investment, said last week that “we shouldn’t make a big deal of Chinese coast guard presence. After all, we don’t have enough ships to patrol the area”.
Divisions in the government over China’s latest incursion have left the president performing “a balancing act” between ministers who want to play down tensions and colleagues, such as the foreign minister, “who do see it as problem,” according to Arifianto.