Indonesia’s Natuna Archipelago, with only 27 of its 154 islands inhabited, is the republic’s northernmost region in the South China Sea and potentially its most vulnerable. Due to their proximity to the disputed areas and features in the South China Sea, the Natuna Islands could become yet another flashpoint in the area.
However, any effective security and military presence in the area will critically depend on local economic and infrastructure development. How will Indonesia under President Joko Widodo manage this potential point of contention with China, which is aggressively pressing its claim over a large swathe of the South China Sea?
Tyranny of distance
More than a thousand kilometers from Jakarta and located about midway between the two halves of Malaysia, the Natuna islands are spread across about 262,000 square kilometers of water, more than ten times their total land size. This presents a major geographical challenge, as does the tyranny of maritime distance within the Natuna archipelago itself. There is also a great distance between the Natunas and the rest of Indonesia, though it is part of the Riau Islands Province with Bintan, Batam and Karimun.
This tyranny of distance consequently compounds Indonesia’s vulnerability in monitoring and controlling this northern frontier. There is no direct commercial flight between Jakarta and Ranai, the largest town in Natuna Besar Island, while daily commodities must be shipped a great distance from Pontianak in West Kalimantan, or from Batam and Bintan Islands near Singapore. Lack of a deep-water port prevents larger ships from calling at Ranai, while smaller ships cannot risk sailing the rough seas during monsoon season.