Indonesians appear convinced that China’s challenge over their gas-rich Natuna Islands represents an urgent national security threat, according to a recent study.
Jakarta has pushed back against Chinese claims that waters surrounding the islands are part of its traditional fishing grounds, in a shift in position driven by an increase in Chinese incursions around the resource-rich area.
Media research showed that “Jakarta had successfully convinced the Indonesian people that the Chinese aspirations in the NI (Natuna Islands) waters represented an urgent national security threat, i.e., Jakarta had successfully securitized the NI issue,” Patrik Meyer, a visiting professor at Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, who conducted the study, told a seminar in Washington on Monday.
He said that the Indonesian government’s discussions and policies around the Natuna islands went from being exclusively a cultural issue to one of urgent national security in the past three years.
“It was successful. People discussed the Natuna islands as a national security issue,” he told participants of the seminar “Escalating Tensions in the South China Sea: Will Indonesia Fight Back?” organized by New America, a U.S.-think tank.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his officials have framed the Natuna islands, an archipelago at the far southern end of the disputed South China Sea (SCS), as a security threat posed by China’s efforts to exert fishing rights around the islands.
Beijing’s claims overlap Indonesia’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone around the Natunas.
“Indonesia finds itself cornered by the actions of the giant in the region,” Meyer said, adding that his study of Facebook and Twitter keywords showed that Jakarta had waged a successful media campaign following a spate of face-offs in 2016 between its navy and Chinese fishing boats off the Natuna Islands.
In a report published earlier this year, “Indonesia’s Swift Securitization of China’s Claims in Natuna Islands,” Meyer said “Beijing’s assertiveness has woken up a dormant conflict with Jakarta, its closest ally in the region, over the sovereignty of the Natuna islands territorial waters that now threatens to erupt into an outright military confrontation.”
Later, he wrote, “It is the recent intensification of China’s verbal and physical assertiveness in this complex power and legal confrontation that has forced Jakarta to break its silence and leave its long held position of ‘honest broker’ to join the resistance to China’s expansion in the SCS.”
While Meyer said messaging has quieted in 2017, government officials continue to stress the need to maintain security.
“This is a priority,” Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan told BenarNews in Jakarta, Monday.
“Securing the area of outer islands, such as the Natunas, is crucial to maintain the stability of Indonesia security. We are multiplying our imaging satellites and strengthening the rapid response unit there,” he said.
Indonesian legislator T.B. Hasanuddin agreed on the need to defend the islands while continuing diplomatic efforts with China.
“If we can, we need to have a patrol unit that oversees the territories. The presence of this unit is very useful to prevent the recurrence of such incidents,” he said, referring to incidents where Chinese Coast Guard ships protected fishing boats in the region.
“We still maintain a good relationship, but we should not surrender our sovereignty,” Hasanuddin told BenarNews.
Meyer offered a warning to Indonesian officials about what they could face in the future.
China, he said, will continue to expand its presence in the SCS and likely will encroach on Indonesia’s territory. Such encroachment is not reversible.
“They act more than they talk,” he said referring to the government of Xi Jinping.
“Pragmatism, not populism, should guide Jakarta,” he said, adding that Jokowi and other government leaders should be firm but not confrontational.
“China will negotiate with you,” he said, adding that Indonesia “should squeeze China for economic benefits.” The report states that China is Indonesia’s main trading partner with exports totaling $15 billion (200 trillion rupiah) or 10 percent of Indonesia’s exports.
In addition, Indonesia needs to reject China’s traditional fishing grounds argument, develop the islands’ economy and improve military and marine infrastructure. He said it appears Jokowi’s government is taking positive steps regarding the economy and military buildup in the region.
“Jakarta and Beijing should approach their legal battle in a flexible and creative way and avoid unnecessary and costly confrontations,” he wrote in the report.
Lintang Sulastri in Jakarta contributed to this report.