Beijing’s rebuke of Jakarta’s decision to rename its natural gas-rich Natuna Island region has agitated what had been a quiescent territorial dispute
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.
This handout photograph taken and released by the Presidential Palace on October 6, 2016 shows Indonesian President Joko Widodo (C) sitting in the cockpit of a Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft next to Military Chief General Gatot Nurmantyo (L) and Air Force Chief of Staff Air Marshal Agus Supriatna (R) during a military drill on the remote Natuna islands.The Indonesian Air Force on October 6 held a major exercise around its island in the South China Sea where there have been clashes with Chinese vessels in waters claimed by Beijing.
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.