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Indonesia, China and the North Natuna Sea

September 8, 2017 | 11:53 pm

Jakarta. Indonesia's assertion of sovereignty by renaming the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea in July has added to the regional dispute over the waters and reflects Indonesian-Chinese interactions in the region.

Indonesian officials have long insisted that the country is a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute. According to them, the decision to rename the waters does not change this position.

After the announcement, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said that Indonesia has every right to rename its territorial waters.

"The North Natuna Sea is within our territory, not in the South China Sea ... We have the right [to rename the waters], because the North Natuna Sea is ours," Susi said, as quoted by Kompas.com on July 18.


China, however, has demanded that Indonesia revoke its decision, in an official note sent by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to the Indonesian Embassy in Beijing, according to a report by Channel NewsAsia.

"The China-Indonesian relationship is developing in a healthy and stable way, and the South China Sea dispute is progressing well ... Indonesia's unilateral name-changing actions are not conducive to maintaining this excellent situation," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Aug. 25.

China also said that Indonesia's move to change an "internationally-accepted name" has resulted in a "complication and expansion of the dispute, and affects peace and stability in the region."

Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, responded to China by saying that the change only relates to the area that is part of Indonesia's exclusive economic zone and does not reach the South China Sea.

Naming the Seas

During a panel discussion hosted by the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club on Tuesday (05/09), the head of policy analysis at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Siswo Pramono, stressed that "states are entitled to name seas by submitting proposals to be considered by the International Hydrographic Organization [IHO]."

Speaking in his capacity as researcher, Siswo said that "Indonesia remains in the position that in the South China Sea it has overlapping jurisdictions only with Malaysia and Vietnam."

The naming of the seas, according to Siswo, involves consultations with the IHO and its member countries.

"The naming of the North Natuna Sea is actually at a very early stage of a long process [that is] in accordance with the IHO procedures ... if Indonesia proceeds with it, all members of the IHO, including China, will be consulted," he said, adding that from this perspective, the July announcement only "marks the beginning of a domestic discourse" to coin the name.

What Exactly Is China's Territorial Claim?

In 1994, Indonesia sent a formal note to Beijing to clarify the coordinates of the waters encircled with the "nine-dash line" that appears on official Chinese maps and has long represented China's claims. China never replied, said former ambassador to Canada and Germany and expert in the law of the sea Hasjim Djalal.

According to Hasjim, two years later a senior Chinese official responded by saying: "Don't worry, this has nothing to do with you."

Rene Pattiradjawane, founder of the Center for Chinese Studies, said that Indonesia's move to rename the North Natuna Sea is an attempt to resist China's claims.

"Where is the nine-dash line? Nobody knows. Where is it? What [are] the coordinates? ... If we want to negotiate our overlapping sovereignty in the sea, what is it based on? You cannot make them based [solely] on the history," Rene said, referring to China's contention that it has "historical rights" in the region.

The issue has been complicated further by China's claims to its "traditional fishing grounds," which came into light following allegations of illegal fishing and the recapture by the Chinese Coast Guard of a fishing boat seized by Indonesia last year.

Rene explained that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both China and Indonesia are parties to, has no provisions on traditional fishing grounds. Negotiations on this issue are usually carried out in bilateral negotiations.

"If China is trying to say there is a traditional fishing ground, there is no legal basis to it at all," Rene said.

The announcement of renaming Indonesia's exclusive economic zone to the North Natuna Sea, which came with a map depicting its reach, was a precedent in the discourse on the region.

"What's interesting about the map is that it's actually the first time China reacted to what Indonesia is doing ... we are trying to tell China 'this is how to divide the territorial sea,'" Rene said.

According to Siswo, the dialogue between Indonesia and China is going to continue, even if there are differences, as bilateral relations are of great importance to the future growth of both countries, especially with their leaders' devotion to their respective visions — China's Belt and Road Initiative and Indonesia's Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF).

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