Indonesia, China go toe-to-toe in gas-rich Natunas

  • The Indonesian government has yet to protest over an incursion by a Chinese survey vessel and two Coast Guard escorts into its economic exclusion zone (EEZ) north of the Natuna islands, which has now continued around a promising natural gas exploration site for more than three weeks.
  • “It’s the longest and most overt incursion we have seen, yet there has been no response at all,” says one analyst, noting that the three Chinese intruding vessels are being shadowed by a rotating flotilla of six Indonesian Navy ships and three Maritime Security Agency (BAKIMLA) patrol craft.
  • It is understood the Indonesian Foreign Ministry did call in Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian to query him about the extended seabed mapping exercise, but no further action has been taken in the most serious incident since a Chinese Coast Guard vessel seized back a captured trawler in territorial waters in 2016.
  • The latest drama was unfolding at the same time senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official Liu Jinsong summoned Indonesian ambassador Djauhari Oratmangun to convey China’s displeasure at the recent announcement of the new AUKUS security agreement involving the US, Australia and Britain.
  • Analysts say it seems ironic for Beijing to be seeking the support of Indonesia and other core Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for what it called a “hypocritical and treacherous act” when it continues to encroach into neighboring backyards in the South China Sea.
  • “This is going to become a fact of life,” said one regional commentator, who sees it as a direct consequence of US-China rivalry. “But why is it in China’s interest to push so hard with the Indonesians? They have already turned Australian opinion against them.”
  • The Guangzhao-based Haiyang Dizhi 10 had its automatic identification system (AIS) activated when it entered Indonesia’s EEZ in late August in the company of the two Coast Guard cutters, both of which had been running dark since they left their homeport of Yulin on Hainan island.
  • Analysts say the survey ship began steaming in a grid pattern, indicating it was mapping the seabed close to where Harbour Energy, a joint venture between Premier Oil and state-owned Russian company Zarubezhneft, launched an appraisal drilling program three months ago.
  • The Chinese have often harassed oil exploration activities in waters claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia, but this is the first time they have homed in on an area where its unilateral nine-dash line claim of historic sovereignty intrudes into Indonesian maritime territory.
  • Indonesian watchers trying to understand Jakarta’s restrained reaction point to China’s role as the country’s biggest infrastructure investor and its leading role in the nickel-smelting, lithium battery and electric car industry which promises to firmly link Indonesia into global supply chains.
  • Up to now, Beijing has only sought to exert its traditional fishing rights inside that contested line, despite the concept not being recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China and Indonesia are both signatories.
  • Since 2016, there have been fewer incursions as the bulk of the Chinese fishing fleet, along with its Coast Guard and militia escorts, have begun ranging further out into the Western Pacific in search of concentrations of fish before they reach Southeast Asian waters.
  • According to one regional analyst, the Chinese navy’s only role is to provide overwatch, deter escalation and, if necessary, to intervene. That allows China to use its forces in a graduated strategy to establish a presence, normalize that presence and ultimately to enforce it in disputed areas.

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