In this June 23, 2016 file photo released by the Indonesian Presidential Office, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, third right, accompanied by Indonesian officials on navy warship KRI Imam Bonjol, at the Natuna Islands, Indonesia.
In this June 23, 2016 file photo released by the Indonesian Presidential Office, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, third right, accompanied by Indonesian officials on navy warship KRI Imam Bonjol, at the Natuna Islands, Indonesia.

TAIPEI - Indonesia’s new military base on a remote island chain near the embattled South China Sea will help it deter Chinese fishing boats and their coast guard escorts from entering territorial waters as Beijing expands its maritime claims.

The Southeast Asian country, which has burned Chinese fishing boats in the past, opened its base last month in the Natuna Islands with more 1,000 personnel, Asian media outlets reported in December. The base near the existing port of Selat Lama has a hangar for drones and supports personnel trained for any kind of operation.

Indonesia’s House of Representatives budgeted for the base in 2016, with the house’s deputy chairman saying at the time that the construction should “ensure the country's sovereign right to exploit the area's natural resources,” the Jakarta Globe news website reported.

Indonesian officials, particularly keen to protect their waters since 2014, built the base to stop Chinese boats from fishing inside their exclusive economic zone and help prove effective control of the Natuna chain itself in any international court in case of a future legal dispute, scholars say. They expect China to reduce its fishing activities.

“If you don’t put an outpost there, some hostile power might stage an island grab,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “There’s every possibility that the Chinese, by building artificial islands, might in the distant future claim the Natunas as well.”

Edge of the South China Sea dispute

China today claims most of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea that reaches from the Natuna chain to the Chinese mainland. Beijing doesn’t claim the Natuna Islands, but in 2016 the Chinese foreign ministry cited historic rights for its fishing boats to use waters near the chain.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam vie directly with Beijing’s government over sovereignty to the South China Sea. China has irked the others by using its economic muscle to landfill small disputed islets for military infrastructure.

Indonesia, long frustrated by a lack of naval power despite its sovereignty over 13,000 islands, publicly burned foreign-registered fishing boats in 2017 to warn against intrusions – and caught China’s attention. 

Most of the burned boats were Chinese, and Chinese coast guard vessels would sometimes escort them, said Jay Batongbacal, an international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines.

In 2016, Indonesian and Chinese vessels clashed three times over Chinese fishing vessels. The two sides entered one standoff that year when Indonesian authorities tried to arrest a Chinese fishing boat but a Chinese coast guard vessel intervened.

“Indonesia, I think, has realized this needs to be addressed, and an outpost on the Natuna Islands makes sense because it is the place furthest up north in that area, so from there they could have a better vantage point in monitoring Chinese fishing activity and responding to them,” Batongbacal said.

Last year Indonesia renamed part of the disputed ocean tract the North Natuna Sea, drawing an angry response from China. Beijing still calls that tract near Borneo the South China Sea.

Before opening the base, Indonesia operated just an airstrip and a small naval base as military installations in the Natuna Islands.

Fishing boats from other countries have ventured into Indonesian-claimed waters – and been caught. But Indonesia has no major ongoing dispute with the other South China Sea claimant countries.

Experts believe no outside power, for example Australia or the United States, pushed Indonesia to open the base as a way to contain China’s maritime expansion. Those countries, along with Japan, have tapped Vietnam and the Philippines to help check China, a Cold War foe that still resents Western-backed global influence.

Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone overlaps the nine-dash line that Beijing uses to mark its South China Sea claim. The two sides get along otherwise.

China seen relenting

China may be put off by the risk of confrontation with Indonesia, said Enrico Cau, associate researcher at the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies, though it covets the fisheries and possible energy reserves under the seabed in question. 

Competition for those resources has underpinned the broader South China Sea dispute since the 1960s.

“Basically, what China does is send its fishing boats in that region, and Indonesia is always forced to intervene,” Cau said. Sino-Philippine and Sino-Vietnamese spats show that stronger defenses can help curtail Chinese activity, he said. “If they are not stopped immediately, they tend to keep encroaching,” Cau said.

In 2012 China took control of Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing spot in the Philippine exclusive economic zone of the contested sea, by occupying its waters and defying vessels from Manila that tried to make it leave. China could try to take islets in the Natuna chain if not stopped, Chong said.

If Indonesia ever goes to the world arbitration court over the Natuna Islands, Chong added, its physical presence there would help establish “effective control.”

Indonesia’s base in the Natuna Islands also falls in line with President Joko Widodo’s goal since taking office in 2014 to step up enforcement against illegal fishing and sea piracy.