What’s in a name? Quite a lot it seems, particularly when it comes to China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea, which Beijing has increasingly come to regard as its own backyard.
Six weeks after Indonesia declared its intention to rename its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) north of the Natuna islands as the ‘North Natuna Sea’, China has demanded that Jakarta drop the new moniker, saying it isn’t conducive to the “excellent” relations between the two countries.
Delivered in a letter to the Indonesian embassy in Beijing on August 25, the Chinese Foreign Ministry protest asserted that the two countries have overlapping claims in the South China Sea and that renaming the area will not alter that fact.
China said changing what it called an “internationally-accepted name” had resulted in the “complication and expansion of the dispute” and affected peace and stability in the region.
In fact, in an action endorsed by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), an inter-governmental organization with United Nations observer status, Indonesia renamed the southernmost part of the South China Sea to the Natuna Sea in 1986 without any undue fuss.
Indonesia’s Maritime Ministry included the North Natuna Sea in the new national map unveiled last month. While President Joko Widodo was reportedly happy with the move, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is said to have had reservations.
The political and diplomatic statement of sovereignty fits with Widodo’s maritime policy, announced in the first days of his presidency, of strengthening connectivity among the country’s 17,504 islands and reasserting state authority over its archipelagic seas.
Siswo Purnama, the Foreign Ministry’s head of policy analysis, says Jakarta has taken only the first step in a long renaming process that starts with a domestic discourse and ends in possible IHO endorsement. “Indonesia,” he says, “won’t be in a hurry.”
It isn’t exactly clear what stretch of waters China says is in dispute, but Indonesian authorities have long puzzled over Beijing’s unilateral nine-dash line map of territorial sovereignty, which encompasses most of the South China Sea and appears to intrude into Indonesia’s EEZ.
Apart from questioning its legality under the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Indonesia’s diplomats in the past have failed in repeated efforts to get China to clarify the geographic limits to the tongue-shaped claim.
Ambassador Hasyim Djalal, a recognized authority on maritime law, says Indonesian never received a reply when it sent a formal note to Beijing in 1994 asking for the coordinates of its nine-dash line map. Two years later, he said, a senior Chinese official told him: “Don’t worry, that’s nothing to do with you.”
Indonesia is not a claimant to the hotly disputed Spratly Islands and, previously at least, did not recognize any sea boundary issue with China. But that changed last year when the Chinese Coast Guard seized back a fishing boat detained by Indonesia in what it said were “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”
Not only was the Chinese trawler intercepted by a fisheries protection craft deep inside Indonesia’s EEZ, but Indonesian officials say two heavily-armed coast guard vessels penetrated the country’s 12-nautical mile territorial limit to force its return.
Traditional fishing grounds are not recognized under UNCLOS, but traditional fishing rights are and have already been the subject of successful bilateral negotiations between Indonesia and two of its neighbors: Australia and Malaysia.
“What are traditional fishing grounds and how far back do we go?”, Djalal asks, pointing to the way Japanese trawlers fished for tuna around Indonesia’s Banda islands for decades before Indonesia was formally declared an archipelagic state in 1982.
With the Widodo government launching a major crackdown on illegal foreign fishing boats in 2014, it always appeared inevitable the new president’s maritime policy would, at some point, bump up against China’s aggressive push into the South China Sea.
Chinese officials conceded in 1994 and again in 2015 that the strategic Natuna island group, lying 300 kilometers from the northwest extremity of Indonesian Borneo, belong to Indonesia.
But the nine-dash line claim, first published in Chinese maps in 1947 and revived in 1992, and Beijing’s more recent claim to supposed ancestral fishing grounds, suggest it does not recognize Indonesia’s EEZ, which should logically follow under the Law of the Sea convention to which both countries are signatories.
Indonesian officials believe the nine-dash-line, extending at least 300-nautical miles south of China’s Hainan Island, ends somewhere before the point where Indonesia’s continental shelf intersects with that of Vietnam and Malaysia.
Protecting its fishing grounds from a country that consumes 32 million tons of fish a year is not Indonesia’s only concern. The North Natuna Sea also contains about 50 trillion cubic feet in natural gas reserves, though all but five trillion of that is in the East Natuna Block.
Known as Alpha-D when it was discovered by ExxonMobil in the early 1970s, East Natuna’s huge quantities of carbon dioxide may always make it uneconomic to develop. Indeed, Exxon recently pulled out of the consortium tasked to bring it on stream.
Indonesia’s Black Platinum Energy, which has made two promising new discoveries 100 kilometers directly to the south of East Natuna, is still some way short of the 2.5 to 3 trillion cubic feet in reserves needed to make the venture commercially viable.
Three fields in the area known as West Natuna, 350 kilometers west of the Natunas, currently supply gas to Singapore and Malaysia through a well-established pipeline network, but those reserves are likely to run out in the next 10 years.
Like East Natuna the three West Natuna fields have never been the subject of a territorial dispute with China.
It is highly unlikely Indonesia or China will file a case at The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration over the claims, as the Philippines did against China and won in July 2012 over ownership of strategic reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands. Beijing rejected the decision and the authority of the court.
Indonesia is also known to be equally leery of The Hague-based court after its humiliating loss to Malaysia of the Sipadan and Ligitan islands off the eastern coast of Borneo in 2002, a decision it accepted but also brought harsh domestic criticism down on the government of the day.