Two days ago, Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, visited the Natuna Islands in order to assert Indonesian sovereignty against China’s growing claims of other islands. The Natuna Islands, located off Borneo, have increasingly seen Chinese and Indonesian authorities clash over the handling of Chinese fishermen by Indonesian authorities. Concerns over the increasing militarisation and focus on these islands by both Indonesia and China have increased.
Widodo visited the islands with a strong contingency of high level ministers including the foreign minister, despite asserting that Beijing and Jakarta had no “territorial disputes”. Widodo asserted that he “wanted to show that Indonesia is a big country” through the stance and rhetoric created from their presence. Furthermore, Indonesian vice president Jusuf Kalla also repeated Widodo’s rhetoric, highlighting that Indonesia would be more proactive in protecting its water rights around the islands.
Contrastingly, China maintained Indonesia’s sovereignty over the islands, however continued to assert that certain waters of the South China Sea faced “overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests”. Japan Times has reported the continued development of Chinese sovereignty claims over the islands and that, despite this current tension, Indonesia and China remain on “friendly” terms.
The significance of the recent presidential visit cannot be understated nor underestimated. As Widodo continues to prove his statesmanship and bolster Indonesia’s relative power position, he will face the increasing power of the Chinese government. Multiple issues can arise from a confrontation from these two large Asian powers; however the significance of the Natuna Islands lies in its strategic importance to China.
The Natuna Islands fit into the wider narrative of China’s sovereignty claims to certain parts of the South China Sea. The islands have natural oil and gas deposits, as do other disputed island waters, and are part of Beijing’s increasing expansion of its exclusive maritime borders. Such disputes have generated retaliation by other states such as the Philippines, and all whilst China increases its infrastructural and military presence. Conflicts can and have the potential to develop on a wider scale as states increasingly compete over territorial demarcations and resource access. Talks for mediation, international arbitration or even the presence of a stronger state could alleviate these tensions.
However, what remains to be seen is the extent to which Indonesia will support its rhetoric and the consequences of increasing its military personnel on the islands would have on bilateral relations. For now, Indonesia and China continue to assert the same rhetoric regarding no territorial disputes, whilst the reality is a stark contrast. Continued dialogue would enable a diffusion of tension provided both sides are prepared to negotiate and not escalate into conflict.
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