In a significant policy shift, Indonesian officials on March 12 announced that China’s nine-dash line map outlining its claims in the South China Sea overlaps with Indonesia’s Riau province, which includes the Natuna Island chain.
For over two decades, Indonesia has positioned itself as an independent mediator in the South China Sea disputes between its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China. Indonesia and China have no overlapping claims to islands. In Jakarta’s view, therefore, Indonesia and China should have no disputes over waters since, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), rights to waters are derived from rights to land.
Indonesia has long pressed Beijing for reassurance on this point, but it has not been forthcoming. Indonesia’s declaration that it is
indeed a party to the South China conflict with China ends the strategic ambiguity that has reigned for years, and is likely to heighten tensions on an issue that is already fraught with them.
The South China Sea dispute became a key strategic issue between China and ASEAN in the mid-1990s. Particularly significant was China’s 1994 Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, approximately 130 miles (210 kilometers) off the coast of Palawan island and hence well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Despite Philippine protests, China built concrete structures on the reef, and today it has a multi-story structure replete with docks, a helipad, and radar.