Abdul met with former US Ambassador to Indonesia Joseph Donovan, who visited the island in 2018, to discuss investment opportunities and said that could include a US-built international airport.
“We welcome foreign investment but if it is possible for us, maybe [investors] from Japan, Australia, or other countries. If it is Chinese investors, we rather not for the moment. We are concerned, what if the workers they bring in are not workers, but their military?
He said investment from other countries who support the South China Sea remaining free and open would be “about business, not so much about politics”.
“But from China, yes, we do have concerns that there would be political side to it. Such as their fishing boats, those in the [North Natuna] sea, the crew were trained persons. Trained, meaning the military.”
Abdul’s call for greater western investment in Natuna is more direct than that of the national government of President Joko Widodo — the administration has previously said it would welcome such foreign funds.
It is the first time a public official has said Chinese investment was not welcome, and the first call for Australia to invest. (Japan and South Korea have already donated funds and expertise to upgrade a fishing port and expand a cold storage facility used by local fishermen.)
It comes as China has stepped up its activities in the disputed waters in recent months.
Ronnie Indra, the head of the Natuna Regency’s Co-operation Department, said American officials had indicated the US Trade and Development Agency could be willing to invest in a new airport. A meeting scheduled for April was cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, as were the Bupati’s trips to the US and Australia to promote the island as an investment destination.
“Since we are also busy and focus our attention to COVID-19, nothing is progressing on that front.”
Greg Poling, the director of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative established by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the US investment “could” happen but there were limited funds in the agency’s budget for an international airport.
The proposal would have to win strong support from Widodo, too.
“The US, Australia and Japan don’t try to compete dollar for dollar with China on infrastructure projects. Where they have stepped in is on a small number of projects where they have a clear strategic threat from planned Chinese investment,” he said. He pointed to proposed naval bases in Subic Bay, Philippines, and Manus Island on Papua New Guinea, as examples.
“The job of the USTDA is to reduce risk for US companies to invest.”
At present, he said the US, Australia and Japan were focused on using their recently launched “Blue Dot Network” to ensure better quality infrastructure was being built in south-east Asia. The group was formed to raise the standards of projects and attract international investment, and counter the rushed rollout infrastructure under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The South China Sea is a strategically vital waterway, in part, because about one third of the world’s cargo transits it. It is also rich in marine, oil and gas resources.
Numerous tiny islands that dot the sea have been militarised by some of the claimant states – most of all by China, which since 2014 has built facilities for aircraft, ships and to project its growing military might across the region.
China’s bold nine-dash line claim to most of the sea and the islands of the Paracel and Spratly chains is rejected by neighbouring countries, and is not supported by international law.
- Read James Massola’s in-depth report on the Natuna Islands in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald on Saturday.
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.