Indonesia objects to Chinese coast guard near Natuna islands

“There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo pushed back today against the perception that China was challenging Indonesia’s sovereignty by sending a coast guard vessel to waters near the northern Natuna islands (click here for the location on Google Maps). Reuters has more:

The confrontation began in mid-December when a Chinese coast guard vessel and fishing boats, entered waters in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, off the coast of the northern Natuna islands, prompting Jakarta to summon Beijing’s ambassador…

Widodo also met with fishermen on the island. Earlier this week, Indonesia deployed more ships and fighter jets to patrol the surrounding waters. Nursyawal Embun, the director of sea operations at the Maritime Security Agency, said as of Wednesday morning that two Chinese coast guard vessels remained, while 10 Indonesian ships were on patrol.

China has not claimed the Natuna islands themselves, but says it has nearby fishing rights within a self-proclaimed Nine-Dash Line that includes most of the South China Sea — a claim that is not recognized internationally.

In 2017, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, as part of a push back against China’s maritime territorial ambitions.

The dispute has soured Indonesia’s generally friendly relationship with China, its biggest trading partner and a major investor in Southeast Asia’s largest country.

From media reports, it does not appear like this particular standoff is likely to escalate, but as we wrote in our 2020 Red Paper, disputes in the South China Sea are among several major factors that could disrupt the expected uneasy peace between the U.S. and China after the “phase one” trade deal is signed.

For more on Indonesia’s spat with China over the Natuna islands, see these reports: