Tensions flare as China claims historical right to Indonesian waters in the South China Sea

Published on
January 8, 2020

Tensions are flaring on the waters of the South China Sea as a sovereignty dispute between Indonesia and China heats up.

Tension between the two countries rose following a series of naval maneuvers by the Chinese coast guard and Chinese fishing vessels in the  waters off the coast of the disputed northern islands of Natuna, The Jakarta Post reported 5 January. The islands are located between the Malaysian peninsula and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo.

In response to the incursion, Indonesia on 30 December summoned Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Xiao Qian to lodge a formal protest. Indonesia said the areas are located well within its exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Indonesian Navy deployed eight warships to patrol the waters, and said in a statement that Chinese vessels operating there will be expelled by force if necessary.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in briefings in Beijing on 31 December and 2 January that Chinese fishermen are free to fish in their “traditional” fishing area, which partly overlaps Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, because China’s “position and propositions comply with international law, including UNCLOS.”

“So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters,” Geng said.

On 1 January, the Indonesia Foreign Ministry rejected China’s claims, saying they have no legal basis and have never been recognized internationally.

China, through its nine-dash line, claims sovereignty over most of the rich-resource South China Sea. Its claim is challenged by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.

“Indonesia always tried to distance itself from the dispute, but this time Jakarta can no longer keep to that position,” The Jakarta Post said.

Amid the rising tensions, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) on 6 January said Indonesia will not negotiate with any party over its sovereignty, particularly regarding the country's territory in the Natuna waters surrounding the Riau Islands, according to Antara News.

The Indonesian government this week also urged local fishermen to sail to the North Natuna Sea to catch fish and help to assert the country's sovereignty in its northern maritime borders amid China's territorial claims, Antara said. It also said the country would move to bolster its military capacity to drive out foreign vessels from the area.

Photo courtesy of Muhammad Zainuddin/Shutterstock

Reporting from Hanoi, Vietnam

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