The Indonesian government has renamed the northern-most area of its maritime economic zone in the South China Sea to the ‘North Natuna Sea’, in what is widely seen as a public display of resistance to Beijing’s territorial claims to the waterway.
At a press conference in Jakarta on Friday, Indonesia’s Deputy Minister for Marine Sovereignty Arif Hava Oegroseno revealed a newly updated map of the region surrounding the Natuna Islands, claiming that the new system will enable the international community to recognize whose territory they are passing through.
While the appellation currently carries no legal force, Oegroseno added that the ‘North Natuna Sea’ would be reported to the UN and to the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) for official designation, and affirmed that the Indonesian government has every right to rename areas within its national territory.
This isn’t the first time a Southeast Asian country has made such an overt political and diplomatic statement to China over the waterway. In 2011, the Philippines renamed its own exclusive economic region to the ‘West Philippine Sea’ in a similar assertion of national sovereignty.
Part of the re-titled area is claimed by China under its divisive maritime boundary, the ‘nine-dash line’, which designates the nation’s control over more than 90 percent of the South China Sea. The area just off the northwest coast of Borneo represents an important economic waterway, which Deputy Oegroseno noted was the site of lucrative oil and gas activity. Beijing has made explicit claims to sovereignty based on a contentious map that was published in China in 1947, and has repeatedly criticized Indonesia for operating in the so-called traditional Chinese fishing region.
Several Southeast Asian states have clashed with Beijing in an enduring feud over its territorial claims, as China continues to bolster its military power throughout the region. It has already constructed seven artificial islands and turned them into military bases, as well as developing an underwater radar network, with the suspected intention of deploying submarines and fighter jets.
The South China Sea is one of the most significant strategic issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The Natuna area is a rich fishing ground, abundant in hydrocarbon and natural resources such as oil and gas, and is a major center of global seaborne trade. Over the past 18 months, as well as arresting Chinese fishermen, Indonesia has also increased its military presence within the economic zone, further escalating tensions with Beijing.
President Trump’s softening rhetoric toward China and principal focus on North Korea have raised concerns that the US will neglect challenging the nation’s growing power in the region, and Southeast Asian allies of the US appear to be looking to the Trump administration for reassurance.
In response to the recent renaming, a Foreign Ministry spokesman for Beijing described Indonesia’s declaration as “totally meaningless”.
Tucker is a foreign correspondent and media analyst for Not Liberal.