Et tu, Jakarta?

The Washington Times Daily - - From Page One - BY MILES YU Miles Yu’s col­umn ap­pears Fri­days. He can be reached at and @Yu_miles.

In a rare move to avoid fur­ther iso­la­tion in a re­gion where it has ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes with nearly all of its mar­itime neigh­bors, China made a ma­jor con­ces­sion last week by pub­licly clar­i­fy­ing and ac­knowl­edg­ing In­done­sia’s sov­er­eign right to the Natuna Is­lands in the South China Sea.

The re­gion has been wit­ness­ing a dra­matic rise of ten­sions since Jan­uary, when China be­gan a mas­sive sand-pump­ing project to greatly ex­pand the tiny isles of Mis­chief Reef and Subi Is­land in the Spratly Is­lands chain in the South China Sea.

The Natuna Is­lands chain, which sits be­tween the north­west­ern tip of In­done­sia on the is­land of Bor­neo and the southern tip of Viet­nam, con­sists of about 270 is­lands that form part of In­done­sia’s Riau Is­lands Prov­ince with some 70,000 res­i­dents

On Nov. 12, China shocked the coun­tries in the re­gion by is­su­ing a first-ever pub­lic state­ment on the Natuna Is­lands. Ac­cord­ing to Hong Lei, China’s For­eign Min­istry spokesman, “The In­done­sian side has no ter­ri­to­rial claim to China’s [Spratly Is­lands]. The Chi­nese side has no ob­jec­tion to In­done­sia’s sovereignt­y over the Natuna Is­lands.”

This is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause, al­though the Natuna Is­lands are out­side of China’s self­des­ig­nated “Nine-Dash-Line” that lays claim to vir­tu­ally all of the South China Sea, Natuna’s 200miles ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone (EEZ) pro­trudes into the area de­fined by the Nine-Dash-Line. To pub­licly rec­og­nize In­done­sia’s sov­er­eign right to the Natu­nas means China’s ac­knowl­edg­ment of In­done­sia’s le­git­i­mate claim to an EEZ in­side China’s self-claimed Nine-Dash-Line.

And this is not some­thing that China has been will­ing to do, partly be­cause of the in­ex­act na­ture of the so-called Nine-Dash-Line and partly be­cause China does not want to show weak­ness to its smaller neigh­bors who chal­lenge its mar­itime claims. Beijing’s fail­ure to clar­ify with In­done­sia the com­pet­ing claims on the Natuna Is­lands and the EEZ lies at the root of the angst felt by Jakarta for decades.

Tra­di­tion­ally, In­done­sian of­fi­cials have pre­ferred low-key diplo­macy with China on the Natuna sit­u­a­tion. And China needs In­done­sia, too, as the largest and weight­i­est coun­try in the ASEAN bloc where four mem­bers — the Philip­pines, Viet­nam, Malaysia and Brunei — openly dis­pute China’s mar­itime claims.

Sev­eral past In­done­sian lead­ers have said they re­ceived pri­vate as­sur­ances from China that, since the two coun­tries do not have an is­land dis­pute in­side the Nine-Dash-Line, China would not dis­pute Jakarta’s sovereignt­y over the Natuna Is­lands. But Beijing has de­lib­er­ately avoided pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the EEZ is­sue, which fu­eled doubts for many in Jakarta over Beijing’s sin­cer­ity in those pri­vate as­sur­ances. Some ar­gued that China was pur­su­ing a Fabian strat­egy to wear In­done­sia down so that the EEZ is­sue would even­tu­ally evap­o­rate.

But Beijing mis­read Jakarta, be­cause In­done­sia seems to have grown in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with Beijing’s strate­gic am­bi­gu­ity on the EEZ sit­u­a­tion.

To make things worse, China be­gan its mas­sive sand-pump­ing project to re­claim and aug­ment small is­lands in the Spratly’s chain, fur­ther an­ger­ing not only Viet­nam and the Philip­pines, but also Ja­pan, Aus­tralia, the United States and In­done­sia. The mar­itime wa­ters just north of the Natuna Is­lands have sud­denly be­come the po­ten­tial flash point of a gen­eral war in­volv­ing the navies of sev­eral of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tions.

The Philip­pines has been among the most tena­cious chal­lengers to China’s am­bi­tions in the South China Sea, hav­ing brought Beijing to an in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion court in The Hague, where the rul­ing in fa­vor of Manila is widely ex­pected.

China has been irate over the law­suit. The of­fi­cial Chi­nese me­dia has lam­basted Manila and the gov­ern­ment has em­phat­i­cally re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in any le­gal chal­lenge. Last month, how­ever, the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion in The Hague ruled against Beijing’s at­tempt to deny the court’s ju­ris­dic­tion over the mat­ter.

Frus­trated by China’s re­fusal for a clar­i­fi­ca­tion and in­spired by the Philip­pine suc­cess in The Hague, Jakarta de­cided to play hard­ball with Beijing, too.

Un­der the newly elected Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo, In­done­sia has stepped up mil­i­tary for­ti­fi­ca­tions on the Natuna Is­lands. Weeks ago, he or­dered more Su-27, Su-30, and F-16 fighter planes and P3-C mar­itime sur­veil­lance and an­ti­sub­ma­rine air­craft to the is­lands, adding more troops to the mil­i­tary base there to demon­strate In­done­sia’s re­solve to pro­tect its ter­ri­tory and the EEZ ar­eas around the Natu­nas.

Then, on Nov. 11, Jakarta dropped a bomb­shell on Beijing. The In­done­sian se­cu­rity chief Luhut Pan­jai­tan told re­porters that if di­a­logue with China on the Natuna is­lands did not yield any re­sult soon, In­done­sia might fol­low the foot­steps of the Philip­pines and bring China to the in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion court for a clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

The next day, China’s For­eign Min­istry spokesman Mr. Hong made history by fi­nally, and openly, an­nounc­ing China’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept In­done­sia’s sov­er­eign claim to the Natuna Is­lands.

Mr. Hong did not men­tion any­thing in his state­ment about the Nine-Dash-Line or the Natu­nas’ EEZ. But he did not have to, be­cause as long as China ac­knowl­edges In­done­sia’s claim, the wa­ters within 200 nau­ti­cal miles au­to­mat­i­cally fall into the range, po­ten­tially chal­leng­ing the le­git­i­macy of China’s vague Nine-Dash-Line.

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