Amid a brewing maritime standoff, Indonesian President Joko Widodo flew to the Natuna Islands on Wednesday (January 8) to underline how seriously his administration takes China’s recent provocations in the southern reaches of the South China Sea.

While some of Widodo’s senior ministers initially sought to play down the tensions, his government has pressed ahead in dispatching warships and jet fighters to the energy and fishery-rich region, which Indonesia has unilaterally renamed the North Natuna Sea.

China has claimed implausibly the area is part of its “traditional fishing grounds”, as defined in its controversial nine-dash line map that dates back to the early 1900s and encompasses as much as 90% of the South China Sea.

Before today’s tour of the main Natuna Besar island, Widodo had declared the issue “non-negotiable.” “There is no such thing as bargaining about our sovereignty, about our country’s territories,” he said, echoing a previous statement from political coordinating minister Mohamad Mahfud.

On January 6, Indonesia announced it was sending six warships and four F-16 fighters to the Natunas. A day later, Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) revealed that two more Chinese Coast Guard vessels were headed to the area to join three patrol craft already inside Indonesia’s Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ).

Jakarta lodged a formal protest with Beijing on December 30 after satellite surveillance and air and sea patrols detected more than 60 Chinese fishing vessels in Indonesian-claimed waters, all of them with their Automatic Identification System (AIS) switched off.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute
Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

Worrying for Indonesian security officials is the increased presence of China’s Coast Guard, a 16,000-strong law enforcement arm under Beijing’s State Oceanic Administration, whose fleet ranges from 130-ton patrol boats to a 12,000-ton cutter, larger than most guided-missile cruisers.

Indonesian officials said it still wasn’t clear whether the two approaching patrol craft are part of a rotation or are intended to serve as reinforcements, which would be an ominous sign that China is upping the ante to test Indonesia’s resolve.

The latest incursions have been the most serious since March 2016 when two Chinese Coast Guard vessels penetrated Indonesia’s 12 nautical mile territorial limit to force the return of a Chinese trawler, which had been intercepted deep inside Indonesia’s EEZ.

Since that incident China appeared to have backed off from antagonizing Indonesia, leading to speculation that the two sides had come to some sort of understanding. But for unclear reasons China is back, pushing the envelope as it has done in the past with Vietnam and the Philippines, both rival claimants to South China Sea islands and features.

“The Chinese are consistent in their pattern of encroachment and how they deploy their vessels,” says one naval analyst. “The Indonesian reaction has been entirely appropriate and proportional. If they don’t push back now, they will soon have more Coast Guard ships in their backyard.”

What has changed since 2016 is that Indonesia now has better satellite tracking systems, augmented by an information and intelligence network that ranges from their own fishing boat crews to a fleet of South Sulawesi-based maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

Indonesia is unlikely to risk a direct confrontation, but by bolstering its naval and air defenses and also directing more Java-based fishing boats into the area, it is providing the first real challenge to the southern limits of China’s historic nine-dash line that asserts control over as much as 90% of the South China Sea.

This handout photo released by the Indonesian Navy and available on June 21, 2016 shows Indonesian War Ship KRI Imam Bonjol-363 (L) arresting a Chinese fishing boat (R) in Natuna water. Indonesia's navy said on June 21 that poaching by Chinese trawlers in its waters was a "ruse" to stake Beijing's claim to fishing grounds, after the latest clash in the South China Sea. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / INDONESIAN NAVY" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / AFP PHOTO / INDONESIA NAVY / HANDOUT / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / INDONESIAN NAVY" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
Indonesian War Ship KRI Imam Bonjol-363 (L) arresting a Chinese fishing boat (R) in Natuna waters on June 21, 2016. Photo: AFP/Indonesia Navy

Among the warships recently deployed to the Natunas are two modified Parchim-class corvettes, which were controversially acquired from the disbanded East German navy in the early 1990s and have since 2016 served in the navy’s Western Fleet.

The four F-16s, part of a frontline fleet bolstered in recent years by the arrival of two squadrons of refurbished US Air National Guard fighters, are flying from their base in Pekanbaru, on the east coast of Sumatra, 840 kilometers southwest of Natuna Besar.

Over the past two years, Indonesia has improved naval docking facilities on the 1,720 square kilometer island, extended its 2,500-meter runway and hangar space to safely land both fighter aircraft and C-130 transport planes, and announced plans to deploy surface-to-air missiles.

Because corvettes have only limited capabilities in patrolling the EEZ, plans are also underway to build six Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class frigates at state-run PT PAL’s Surabaya shipyard under a transfer-of-technology deal initially worth US$720 million.

Sources who track the movement of Chinese fishing fleets across the region say the Natuna intrusions actually began in early November, conforming with a pattern of incursions into Indonesian waters that in past years have normally stretched from December to April.

Analysts are curious why China is pressuring Indonesia now when some progress has been made in talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea designed specifically to forestall an outbreak of hostilities around the disputed Spratly islands to the north.

Chinese PLAN shipmen during an operation in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP via Getty

Diplomats say the two sides must still overcome several major sticking points, including the geographical coverage of the new code, whether it will be legally binding, the enforcement mechanism to be used and the role of third parties such as the United States and Japan.

China has proposed at recent ASEAN meetings that foreign players, namely the US, should be excluded from the maritime area, including in regard to energy exploration and production, as part of the code.

Increasingly reliant on Chinese funding for ambitious infrastructure and development programs, Widodo’s government has been reluctant to take diplomatic action over such issues as the persecution of China’s Uighur Muslim minority.

While Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on China to respect “the rules we have agreed on together,” Maritime and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Panjaitan and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, both former army generals, initially sought to play down the latest incidents.

“It is actually simple, no need to be overly concerned about it,” said Panjaitan, who was Indonesia’s point man on Chinese-funded projects even before investment was added to his portfolio in Widodo’s new Cabinet. “Why make a fuss about it.”

Prabowo, who was a strong critic of Indonesia’s growing commercial ties with Beijing when he campaigned against Widodo in the 2019 presidential election, was equally placatory. “We are cool and calm about it,” he said. “We will end it well. After all, China is a partner country.”

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping (R) at the G20 Summit, Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Tomohiro Ohsumi/Pool

Prabowo only recently returned from Beijing, where the main agenda item in his meetings with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe and Central Military Commission deputy chairman Xu Qiliang was defense cooperation, including the transfer of drone technology.

But sovereignty issues are a lightning rod for a country which fought hard for its independence from colonial rule and in the past five years has enforced a ban on all foreign fishing vessels from Indonesian waters, where they once plundered maritime resources at will.

Indonesia rejects China’s use of its vaguely-defined nine-dash line, noting that the term “traditional fishing grounds” is a unilateral term which has no legal basis and is not part of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Jakarta ratified the convention in early 1986, finally gaining international recognition as an archipelagic state with control over a 2.7 million square kilometre EEZ and 300,000 square kilometers of territorial waters; Chinese ratification followed in 1996.

Beijing insisted in a recent statement it has sovereignty over seas stretching south for an undetermined distance from the Nansha Islands, its name for the Spratly archipelago which is claimed in parts by China, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a joint military exercise in the South China Sea in April 2018. Photo: Xinhua

The nine-dash line and other historic claims were invalidated in a 2016 international arbitration ruling on a case brought by the Philippines government against China. Beijing refused to participate in the proceedings and angrily rejected the decision by the five-man panel.

Although the Spratlys are 1,120 kilometers to the northeast of the Natunas, the Chinese Foreign Ministry recently said Chinese Coast Guard vessels were on legitimate routine patrols “to maintain sea order and protect the rights and interests of our people.”

Analysts have noted, however, that since the arbitration ruling China has sought to modify its approach, floating the idea of “state practice,” or what amounts to customary law, in drawing up UNCLOS-recognized baselines to define maritime zones of jurisdiction.

“They are trying all sorts of ways to justify the nine-dash line [map] without actually referring to it,” says one regional analyst, who has first-hand knowledge of the discussions. “What they seem to be proposing is a Law of the Sea that applies only in Asia.”