On Thursday, the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) held their largest exercises to date off the resource-rich Natuna archipelago in the South China Sea. The exercise marks another notch in Jakarta’s approach to the Natuna archipelago, where tensions have risen with China after a series of incidents involving Indonesian naval and maritime law enforcement authorities and their Chinese counterparts. Indonesia, under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, has placed a particular emphasis on safeguarding its maritime sovereignty, in particular against illegal foreign fishing trawlers.
The scale of Thursday’s exercise stands out. Reuters notes that “hundreds of military officials” and “about 70 jets” were involved in the exercise, which included “a dog fight and dropping bombs on targets off the coast.” Underlining the high degree of executive importance being attached to the Natuna region, Jokowi himself watched the exercise from Ranai, the capital of the Natuna archipelago, which is part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province. Thursday marked Jokowi’s second visit to the area since June, when he inspected naval patrols in the Natuna Sea. In July, Jokowi’s cabinet met on board a warship in the Natuna region as well.
Despite the scale and Jokowi’s attendance, Indonesian authorities, including Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, sought to defuse the perception that the exercises were in reaction to increasing South China Sea tensions. “It’s not the first airborne exercise we have carried out. We have done it several times. This military training exercise will be conducted by the Indonesian Military in Indonesian territory. It’s not in the South China Sea, but in Natuna,” the foreign minister told reporters on Tuesday, according to the Jakarta Post.
Despite the foreign minister’s insistence, the exercises are part of the Indonesian government’s bid to uphold the integrity of the country’s maritime entitlements in the area. Along with vesting increasing amounts of military energy toward the Natunas, the Indonesian government is out to develop the Natuna Sea region’s rich gas reserves. Various firms, including Exxon Mobil and Thailand’s PTT Exploration and Production, have been in exploratory talks with the Indonesian government to assess the Natuna region’s prospects. Jokowi, on Thuesday, drew a clear link between defense and the Natuna region’s economic fortunes: “We want to strengthen the economy in the border areas and empower the defense and security in that region,” he said.
Thursday’s exercises involved as many as 13 Indonesian F-16 fighters and a unit of Sukhoi Su-30 fighters, Indonesia’s Antara news agency reported. Indonesian Special Forces additionally carried out “military static and dynamic line jumps from the rear of a CN-295 and C-130 Hercules.” Reports added that the Indonesia Air Force fired Oerlikon cannons and QW3 missiles at targets. Though no confirmation was available from Indonesian reports after the exercise, IHS Jane’s 360 had reported that the Indonesian Navy’s Todak-class ship KRI Layang (805) was slated to test launch a China-made C-803 anti-ship missile.
The waters in question are part of South China Sea territory claimed by China under Beijing’s ambiguous nine-dash line claim, which was ruled to be invalid under international law by a Hague-based tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. Despite a complex web of disputes over various islets and features in the South China Sea, Indonesia does not consider itself a South China Sea claimant and has sought clarity from China on its claims in the Natunas bilaterally. Beijing only claims waters in the area through its nine-dash line, which intersects with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. China does not claim any island features in the Natunas.