Located off the northwestern coast of Indonesia, Natuna Islands — which have an area roughly twice the size of Hong Kong and a population of just 70,000 — have seldom drawn international attention until the territory recently saw a massive military build-up by the Indonesian government.
The military build-up, which includes construction of an airfield for newly-acquired AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, barracks for military personnel and ports for naval vessels, comes for a reason. It is part of Jakarta’s contingency plan against possible clashes with China in neighboring waters in the days ahead.
Even though Indonesia is not part of a broader regional dispute over China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea, the two countries do have overlapping claims on maritime rights in the region, as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surrounding the Natuna Islands extends right into the neighboring waters to which China has laid claim.
The disputed waters are often known as the “nine-dash line” (南海九段線) which Beijing marks on maps to show its claim.
The potential for clashes between the two countries over the disputed waters has been mounting quickly, and Jakarta’s military build-up on the Natuna Islands is anything but paranoia.
In March this year, the Indonesian navy intercepted a Chinese fishing boat near the islands. When they were trying to confiscate the boat and take the crew on board into custody, two large armed vessels of the China Coast Guard suddenly intervened, forcing the Indonesian navy to back down.
The incident immediately provoked a public backlash in Indonesia, and many feared that it could be a prelude to more aggressive moves from China over its territorial claims.
Amid the rise of nationalist sentiment and calls for defending the country’s territorial integrity, Jakarta had no choice but to act tough and talk tough over the dispute.
However, it is pretty much a balancing act. That is because while the Indonesian government has to take a tough stance on the issue to please its people, Jakarta has to be also very careful not to let the dispute escalate into an all-out confrontation with Beijing given their growing economic ties.
As such, it is fair to say the massive military build-up on the Natuna Islands is indeed a muscle-flexing show intended both for Beijing and for the Indonesian public.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 21.
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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