The Natuna Islands matter
30 Jun 2016|

Image courtesy of Department of Defence

In case anyone thinks that Indonesia’s somewhat diffident assertion of its fishing rights in the waters around the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea is just the usual squabble between fishermen from neighbouring countries, it’s important to recognise the issue for what it is: another potential trigger for serious force escalation in the South China Sea. And in case anyone thinks that China is going to back down and let Indonesian patrol vessels open fire on Chinese fishing vessels and then arrest them, it’s important to recognise that capitulation is about the last thing that China would contemplate.

First, a bit of geography. The Natuna archipelago consists of 272 islands with the largest, Natuna Besar, lying approximately 600 kilometres east of Kuantan (Malaysia) and 150 kilometres north-west of the northernmost tip of Kalimantan and almost 2,000 kilometers south of Hainan. Indonesia’s maritime border extends approximately 20 kilometers north of the most northern island of the group, Pulau Laut. Indonesia’s maritime border is recognised by Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and there are no maritime issues in contention between them.

Second, a bit of geopolitics. China’s ‘nine dash line’, on which it stakes its South China Sea claims, was initially a Taiwanese claim, manufactured in 1947 with the assistance of the US. It includes the Paracel Islands to the east of Vietnam, Scarborough Reef to the west of the Philippines and the Spratly Islands to the west of the Philippines and north-west of Sabah. Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have conflicting claims to parts of the Spratley Islands, while China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the lot. The problem for Indonesia, and China for that matter, is that the ‘nine dash line’ is not continuous, and just how the sixth and seventh dashes might be linked is part of the issue. But not all of it.

Third, a bit of strategic policy. China has long sought to secure its heartland through the creation of buffers—land buffers to its north and west, and, more lately, a massive sea buffer, its South China Sea claim, to its east and south. For strategic reasons, it would be impossible for China to resile from its South China Sea claim, not least of all because it wishes to afford maximum security and protection to its Yulin submarine base in southern Hainan province. And therein lies the current ‘fisheries’ problem around the Natuna Islands. While China seems ever ready to ‘beggar its neighbours’ by cleaning out what’s already a fish stock on the verge of collapse the real ‘fish’ in question are SSNs, not tuna and travelly.

So the core issue is a strategic one, not a maritime or seabed resources one. And that’s where the nature of any regional or international response becomes one of strategic moment. Like its ASEAN partners, Indonesia has hitherto been reluctant to take on China, preferring either to hope that the problem goes away (which it won’t) or that a regional resolution of the problem will not be to Indonesia’s disadvantage. Hence its offer of an ‘honest broker’—in a situation where there isn’t much honesty and even less brokering.

The US, particularly the USN, is keen to assert its rights to freedom of navigation by sailing a warship within China’s claimed EEZ in the South China Sea. And it would be happy for Australia to go along for the ride. The question is: just how smart would it be to risk escalation of the issue by testing China’s resolve with military vessels when China has evidently placed no restriction on the freedom of navigation of commercial vessels, very few of which fly US or Australian flags?

For its part, China will claim such an assertion of what it will describe as ‘so-called’ rights to be a provocation and an escalation. The US will thumb its nose at Chinese protests, but cause no change to China’s claim. So, for the US it’ll amount to little more than a demonstration of impotence, and for China a demonstration of its intransigence. And notwithstanding the fact that some 74% of Australians apparently favour Australia’s ‘conducting maritime operations…in an effort to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea’, the Australian government would need to take a long hard look at the strategic consequences of such an action. For we, too, would be doing little more than demonstrating our impotence.

There’s no doubt that China is bullying the ASEAN claimants. What’s more, China is getting away with it. And if the ASEAN nations are unwilling to act either individually or collectively in their own interests, what’s the advantage for Australia in taking a stand? Were Indonesia, for instance, to request RAN participation in a demonstration of freedom of navigation rights, there may be merit in such an exercise. It’s all very well for Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his senior Cabinet officers to meet on Natuna: China isn’t contesting Indonesia’s sovereignty, but rather Jakarta’s EEZ. Indonesia needs to find a more assertive way of standing up for its interests.

Strategic problems demand strategic solutions. Should the Permanent Court of Arbitration find in favour of the Philippines in its ruling on 7 July, China will certainly ignore the judgement, and may even repudiate the UNCLOS system entirely. And, as a non-signatory, there isn’t much that the US can do about that. Australia’s best strategic course is to continue to press for an international rules-based system for the management of international relations and the resolution of disputes, a system that China must both help to design and then abide by. A demonstration of impotence wouldn’t advance Australia’s regional strategic posture, and may be seen in ASEAN as just another example of Australia’s willingness to insert itself where it’s not needed.