Indonesia has long been cautious in confronting China’s claims in the South China Sea, so its announcement on July 14 that it was renaming a part of the area the “North Natuna Sea” may have come to many as surprise. The new name encompasses a region north of the Natuna islands that partly falls within the infamous “nine dash line,” by which China claims the sea stretching fifteen hundred miles from its mainland coast almost to the shores of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, and Indonesia. China immediately demanded a retraction—which it will not get.
The naming was a reminder of how seriously Indonesia treats its position as the seat of ancient trading empires and location of some of the world’s strategically most important straits—Melaka, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar. Since he was elected in 2014, President Joko Widodo has made maritime issues central to Indonesia’s foreign policy, building up its navy, arresting dozens of foreign ships caught fishing illegally, and taking a quiet but firm stand on sea rights. Although not a populist vote-winner, the policy is generally approved, particularly by the military, which since the war of independence against the Dutch has seen itself as the guardian of the integrity of the nation and its internationally recognized status.
The naming also came shortly before the sixtieth anniversary of a pronouncement that has had a profound impact on the whole world. On December 13, 1957, the Indonesian government unilaterally declared that it was an “archipelagic state,” claiming sovereignty over all the waters within straight baselines between its thousands of far-flung islands. Though the young republic was in no position to enforce it, this was a revolutionary move: at the time, Western powers asserted that territorial seas were limited to three miles, and that otherwise foreign ships, military included, had complete freedom of movement.
Twenty-five years of international negotiation followed, culminating in the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, defining rights and obligations relating to sea boundaries and resources, and rights of “innocent passage”—not endangering the security of the coastal state—through straits and internal and territorial seas. It accepted the archipelagic state principle, and made twelve-mile territorial seas and two-hundred-mile “exclusive economic zones,” or EEZs—which give exclusive rights for fishing and exploitation of seabed resources—the global norm. (The United States in practice accepts the Convention, as clarified by a subsequent 1994 agreement, but has never ratified it.)
Although Indonesia has no island disputes with China, its stance on the Natuna waters allies it with the other littoral nations in facing up to China (though the Philippines under President Duterte currently appears to prefer Chinese money to sovereignty over its seas). Last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague applied the Convention to rule decisively for the Philippines in its claim against Chinese actions within its EEZ, including driving out Philippine fishing boats, and building structures on rocks and shoals that did not have the status of islands. In doing so, the court rejected China’s claims to the whole sea and by implication the waters of North Natuna.