Four ASEAN countries contest China’s expansive nine (now ten) dash line claim in the South China Sea. Indonesia is not among these countries, allowing it to operate as a somewhat credible intermediary between the other disputants. However, as The Diplomat noted earlier this year, the Natuna archipelago off the northwest coast of Borneo could increasingly bring Indonesia into the ranks of ASEAN states that regard Beijing’s expansive South China Sea claims with scorn. A Reuters report published this week takes a look at the details of the Natuna archipelago, which both Jakarta and Beijing acknowledge as “part of Indonesia’s Riau Province.”
The issue with Natuna is primarily one of ambiguity stemming from China’s dashed line claim in the South China Sea. The claims, first substantiated by the Kuomintang (KMT) government when it ruled the mainland in 1947, represent the maximum extent of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. The Indonesian foreign ministry maintains that there is no dispute with China over the Natuna archipelago but has noted that the waters surrounding the archipelago were included in the latest iteration of China’s official maps detailing its dashed line claims. Based on comments made by Indonesian officials earlier this year, it seems that Beijing hasn’t been entirely transparent about its intentions for the Natuna archipelago and if it indeed does see these islands as falling within the scope of its nine-dash claim. Indonesia for its part sought clarifications from the United Nations on what China’s nine dash line means in an international legal sense, according to Reuters.
According to Natuna’s district chief, there are concerns among those residing on the islands that China may attempt to seize the territory from Indonesia in the future. “We’re worried they’ll take over this territory,” Ilyas Sabli, the district chief of the islands, told Reuters. China seized the Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited area, from the Philippines in 2012. Earlier this year, it placed an oil rig within waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), sparking a crisis. There is no precedent for China seizing inhabited territory in the South China Sea to date. Natuna is home to 80,000 people across 27 islands.
The Natuna islands issue currently sits in a strange sort of limbo. Indonesian officials are wary both of China’s intentions and potentially of losing their privileged leadership position within ASEAN by acting on their suspicions. Beijing, meanwhile, seems content to leave matters as ambiguous as ever, focusing instead on its higher-profile disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam. China has nonetheless stepped up its assertiveness in its near seas in recent years. This suggests that Indonesians officials are right to stay alert regarding China’s intentions for Natuna.