Indonesia set to upgrade military base in islands perched on edge of South China Sea

Kyodo

Following a series of incidents in the Natuna waters involving Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels, Indonesia plans to upgrade its military base in the Natuna Islands on the edge of the South China Sea, a Cabinet minister said Tuesday.

Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said that during a plenary session the House of Representatives approved an extra budget of 6.59 trillion rupiah (about $486 million) this year for the Ministry of Defense to upgrade the military base.

The additional budget has increased the total budget for the ministry to 106.09 trillion rupiah this year.

According to Ryamizard, a bigger, more sophisticated air base will be built in the islands. Indonesia will also buy three frigates and a jet fighter to be stationed at the base.

“More marines and elite forces will be deployed there,” he said.

Two weeks ago, an Indonesian warship fired warning shots at escaping Chinese fishermen accused of fishing illegally in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, before finally managing to stop their boat and arrest them.

In March, an Indonesian patrol boat intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel inside the EEZ and detained eight crew members, but a Chinese coast guard vessel physically intervened and forced its release.

Last Thursday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo chaired a Cabinet meeting aboard a warship in waters off the Natuna Islands on the edge of the South China Sea, in an apparent signal to China that the area belongs to Jakarta.

Following Jokowi’s Natuna visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated at a press briefing in Beijing that China, which has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei in the South China Sea, recognizes Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands.

At the same time, Hua insisted that the two counties have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests in the area that still need to be resolved, alluding to China’s so-called “nine-dash line” claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

Indonesia protested against China’s nine-dash line map when it was submitted to the United Nations in May 2009.

Hua urged Indonesia to work with China to settle the two countries’ differences, properly handle their fishing disputes and safeguard bilateral relations and regional peace and stability.

Indonesia has recently strengthened its capability to defend its land and waters in the South China Sea, namely around the Natuna Islands.

Indonesia currently has about 800 military personnel in the Natuna region. This year, the number will rise to about 2,000.

Through diplomatic channels and notes, Indonesia has repeatedly sought clarification from China on the nine-dash line shown on a map published in 1947 by the then Republic of China to justify its claim to most of the South China Sea, but to no avail.

Although Indonesia is not a claimant state in the disputes over islands and reefs in the South China Sea, it has been warily monitoring China’s activities there, including its reclaiming of land on features it occupies, its building of military infrastructure there, and its surveying and fishing activities.