Indonesia’s detention of 75 Chinese nationals and their eight fishing boats off the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea has unwittingly provoked a reaction from Beijing that revives its claim over the maritime zone.
A statement by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on June 25 used the term “Nangsha” Islands in reference to the case, China’s term for what the rest of the world calls the Spratlys.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei all assert rights to exclusive economic zones in parts of the South China Sea based on their claims to some or all of the rock atolls that poke above the surface at high tide.
The islands are vitally important to all these countries because they sit in waters that carry more than half of the world’s supertanker traffic. Significant reserves of oil and gas are believed to lie under the sea as well and the fisheries resources are enormous.
The dispute over who owns the islands has seen bloodshed a number of times. In 1976, China kicked Vietnamese forces out of the Paracels, in the northern part of the South China Sea. In 1988, the two sides clashed again at Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, with the loss of several Vietnamese boats and over 70 sailors.
Indonesia has until recently been a cautious bystander in these events. However, a series of Chinese maps, the first produced in 1993 at an informal workshop on the South China Sea hosted by Indonesia in Surabaya, appear to stake a claim by China to the entire South China Sea, including the marine territory north of the Natunas.
This claimed area overlaps Indonesia’s assumptions that its Exclusive Economic Zone extends northward from the Natunas, jutting into the South China Sea and including areas believed to hold significant oil and gas reserves.
At the meeting in Surabaya, B. Raman, a former senior Indian government official, wrote in Asian Affairs that there was alarm on the part of the Indonesian delegation.
“The Indonesians noticed to their surprise that the Chinese claim line was marked between the Natuna Islands of Indonesia and a gas-bearing area located 250 kilometers to the northeast of it, which lies within the limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone of 320 kilometers claimed by Indonesia, thereby raising the suspicion that China probably looked upon this gas-bearing area also as historically belonging to it even though it had never claimed it in the past before the discovery of gas.”
Nothing has been heard of the Chinese claim following another map published in 1998, at least until the arrests of the fishermen. The Chinese foreign ministry’s reaction to the arrests made it crystal clear that the issue remains on China’s agenda.
The language used by spokesman Qin Gang left no doubt that China will use its increasingly close association with Indonesia as momentum for a heightened position on the South China Sea issue.
“China is strongly dissatisfied with Indonesia for having detained these Chinese fishing boats and it demands that the Indonesian government immediately release the fishermen and boats,” Gang said.
Calling China and Indonesia “strategic partners,” Gang said, “the two countries should settle the problem as soon as possible in the spirit of friendly consultation and maintaining the overall situation of bilateral relations.”
While Gang demanded the release of the fishermen, Indonesia continues to detain them in West Kalimantan.
The government will need to judge its response to the demand carefully. Giving in to Beijing and releasing the men would be tantamount to acceptance of China’s implicit claim to the seas to the north of the Natuna Islands, along with the gas presumed to be there.
Going ahead with trials of the men and possibly sentencing them for illegal fishing would be seen by China as an aggressive act in contradiction of the strategic partnership agreement signed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and President Hu Jintao in 2005 in Beijing, the first such agreement between China and a Southeast Asian state.
Since then, China has been a strong supporter of Indonesia and Chinese capital has been critical in funding the 10,000 megawatt electricity generation capacity expansion program.
China has shown in the past that it does not distinguish between its political and economic interests in adopting strategies toward the outside world. Jakarta now finds itself between a rock and a hard place in its relationship with the world’s emerging economic superpower.
Keith Loveard is a Jakarta-based journalist and political analyst.