More than a thousand kilometres north of Indonesia’s sprawling capital Jakarta, Natuna Besar island is just a speck in the vast South China Sea.
The largest island in one of the most remote parts of Indonesia, it remains an undeveloped, quiet frontier town, home to about 80,000 people. But it is on the front line in the contest for influence and control of a vital strategic waterway.
Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have rights in this sea under the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea. Taiwan also has a claim and China, under its “nine-dash line” policy, considers more than 80 per cent of these waters to be Chinese.
The sea accounts for 12 per cent of the global fish catch, according to a 2015 estimate, in a region where populations and incomes are growing rapidly.
But the increasingly tense contest here is not just about fish. It’s also about tiny, militarised islands and freedom of navigation in waters through which one-third of global shipping passes each year.
The US State Department estimated in 2019 there were $US2.5 trillion ($3.6 trillion) in untapped oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea. Another estimate, from the US Energy Information Agency, is of 11 billion probable barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
It’s China’s claim to the sea — and its program of building up reefs into artificial islands since 2014 — that is the greatest concern. Places once marked only by fishing huts can now host military planes, missiles and refuelling stations for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N).
The rising superpower’s building program has been the most aggressive, its claim the most extensive, and its air force is by far the largest and most capable in the region. It is Beijing that can create facts on the water and change the very terrain that is subject to dispute.
A contest on the waves
In December 2019 and January 2020, Indonesia – which is not a claimant state to the Spratly or Paracel islands, but which faces a competing Chinese claim to the seas north of the Natuna Islands — was dragged back into the contest.
A flotilla of as many as 63 Chinese fishing boats, four Chinese coast guard vessels and a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel sailed into the Natunas, causing a tense confrontation on the water and a furious exchange between Jakarta and Beijing.
More recently Chinese forces were harassing a ship, the West Capella, contracted by Malaysia to survey for resources in waters China claims. In April, Chinese vessels rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. In recent years it has sent its outsized coast guard, maritime militia, fishing fleet and more to intimidate countries which have valid legal claims under the UN convention.
The US and Australia conducted naval exercises in the disputed waters earlier this year, but while many nations condemn China’s actions, Beijing isn’t slowing down.
After Chinese vessels entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) earlier this year, Jakarta scrambled its navy and Bakamla (maritime security) vessels, a handful of F-16 fighter jets and sent fishing boats from the main island of Java to repel the incursion. Eventually the Chinese vessels left the waters.
Greg Poling, the director of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, says that China has not yet “won” the South China Sea but “I do think on whatever metric you use the US is losing and South-east Asian states are losing. Whether you want to look at that as a question of international law or access or resources, clearly China is winning on all fronts.”
Poling has a blunt warning for a world already reeling from China’s recent bloody border confrontations with India, its crackdown on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms and its sabre-rattling towards Taiwan.
“It still seems unlikely to me [that] you would have an intentional clash between the PLA-N and the US Navy, [but] we can’t discount the possibility of an accidental clash,” he says.
“The way China intends to dominate the South China Sea is without force, by forcing south-east Asian states to accept that they have already lost, that China’s predominance with paramilitary and coast guard forces is such that [they] should just take whatever bad deal is on the table – thereby undermining the credibility of the US, Australia, Japan and anyone else.”
‘They will just return’
During a visit to Natuna Besar by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and in interviews over the past three months, local fishermen told us that Chinese vessels have already returned, despite an initial show of force from Indonesia and China’s struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The island boasts unspoiled beaches and idyllic forests, but minimal facilities such as restaurants, shops, hotels or even a taxi service for tourists.
There are no flights from Jakarta and just two a day from the regional capital Batam to the island’s airport, which doubles as an air force base.
The local bupati, or regent, has big plans to attract foreign investors from the US and beyond — including Australia — to turn the island into a hot tourist destination. The potential is there, though not yet the money. Many of the locals still make a living from traditional fishing in small, five or six-tonne wooden boats.
Local man Dedi, 36, who uses just one name, has been fishing in the North Natuna Sea (a term Jakarta began using in 2017 to bolster its position there) since he was a child.
He and other local fishermen such as Endang, 33, fish using traditional fishing lines. The men willingly shared videos they have taken and GPS data that show the Chinese vessels, including coast guard and a government-funded fishing fleet, that encroach upon Indonesian waters.
Dedi says the last time he saw Chinese vessels in the waters of the Natunas was on May 4 and 5.
“It was Chinese coast guard and further in the distance at least three Chinese fishing boats. They all have metal hulls, big ones, hundreds of tonnes. There could have been more Chinese fishing boats, but it was too far for me to see.
“I am sad, we Natuna fishermen are sad, we have all these foreign vessels in our waters. Everywhere, all the time. I don’t see the Chinese as often, only every few months. But the Vietnamese, there are so many of them, some come so close to shore, to shallow waters, only 60 nautical miles from land. They use smaller boats [compared to the Chinese], maybe 60 to 80 tonnes, they use Malaysian flags, but we can tell, the shape of their boats is different to the Malaysians’.”
He says he saw two Malaysian boats and at least 40 Vietnamese boats on his last trip: “There were so many of them, I was the only Indonesian boat, tiny [six tonnes] compared to them.”
Dedi laments the lack of a sizeable presence of Indonesian navy and Bakamla boats. “Indonesian patrol boats, not much use to them, because they don’t arrest the foreign vessels, they can only chase away. Once [foreign vessels are] chased away, they will just return the next time,” he says.
In the harbours on the edges of hamlets that dot Natuna Besar, evidence of Indonesian security vessels was scarce. An overflight of the North Natuna Sea yielded no sign of Chinese vessels — but it’s a vast expanse of water.
During a visit to Natuna Besar in March, Bakamla chief Vice-Admiral Laksamana Madya Aan Kurnia welcomed local fishermen braving a trip out into their own EEZ in five-tonne boats and talked up efforts to patrol the waters.
But he was realistic about how much Indonesia’s forces could actually achieve: “We currently only have 10 ships, we need 77, we need more surveillance equipment and more human resources.”
Endang says he is “proud to be part of this. By being there, by waving our flag on our boat, that’s our way of saying that we are here, we are proud, we are fighting for Indonesia, this is our home.”
Endang is also worried that foreign fishermen using nets will cause significant damage to the floor of the ocean over time.
“It’s possible that my kids may be fishermen in the future too, and I want to leave the sea to the future generations.”
But Dedi recalls one showdown he experienced with Chinese coast guard vessels in October 2019, inside Indonesia’s EEZ.
“They chased us away,” he says, “frankly speaking ever since that, I am scared. How could we not get scared, being chased away by big boats … we and our small boats, we need protection, we need more patrol boats in our waters, in North Natuna Sea, not Javanese boats.
“We are powerless to stop foreign fishermen stealing our fish, claiming our sea … I am Indonesian, I should be able to fish safely in my own home.”
China’s waiting game
Poling says the Chinese Coast Guard vessels range in size from 2500 to 4500 tonnes. Some are lightly armed, others bristle with guns, and the difference between them and their Vietnamese counterparts is clear.
“The Vietnamese are actually doing this for profit, these are Vietnamese boats who have lost fishing grounds somewhere else so they go to Indonesian waters,” he says.
“The Chinese are not doing this under any commercial logic, they are doing it as an act of [asserting] sovereignty backed up by the Chinese government.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi says that “Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with China”.
It’s a position that reflects Jakarta’s determination to separate the bilateral dispute over the North Natuna Sea from the multilateral one over the South China Sea.
“It is not relevant to hold any dialogue on maritime boundary delimitation on the South China Sea,” Retno said. “Indonesia has overlapping claims on the maritime boundary delimitation with Malaysia and Vietnam. In fact, through negotiations Indonesia has successfully concluded continental shelf boundaries with Malaysia and Vietnam. Indonesia is now negotiating the EEZ boundaries with Malaysia and Vietnam.”
Evan Laksmana, from Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says China has stolen a march on South-east Asian nations.
“What matters is power, prudence and purpose,” he says.
China now has the upper hand in terms of power projection through militarising islands, it has achieved its purpose and it can be prudent — and wait — to strengthen its claims.
“They are waiting for one of us to slip up and acknowledge China’s illegal claims in the South China Sea. They have time on their side and I don’t think we have,” he says.
“Their overall purpose is not just controlling the waters, they have a greater strategic goal – to break US alliances in the region, to show it can’t be relied upon and to eventually get the US out of Asia. Every country now has to take China’s concerns into consideration. Their goal is a lot clearer than the other claimant states, or even the US.”
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.
Amilia Rosa is Assistant Indonesia Correspondent.