Indonesia Asserts Sovereignty by Renaming Portion of South China Sea

Indonesian president Joko Widodo on a visit to the Natunas
Indonesian President Office

Indonesia is attempting to change the name of a portion of the hotly disputed South China Sea that falls within its exclusive economic zone, christening it the “North Natuna Sea.”

The official announcement from the Ministry of Maritime Affairs said the name change was intended to promote “clarity and similarity,” particularly among oil and gas explorers, who have been referring to the region with several different variations of the “Natuna” nomenclature. Indonesian officials also noted that people who live on islands in the region have long referred to it as the North Natuna Sea.

The name change is unlikely to please China, which claims part of the renamed region. Reuters quotes the Indonesian government insisting it does not want a fight with China, but wishes to protect the rights of fisherman around the Natuna Islands.

Perhaps more to the point, when Indonesian officials unveiled a map of the renamed region, its northern reaches included oil and gas deposits.

“This will be noticed in Beijing,” Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute predicted of Indonesia’s bid for sovereignty in the region.

However, Reuters notes that Beijing is trying very hard not to notice the name change, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman sneering that “certain countries’ so-called renaming is totally meaningless.” Not only was he unwilling to use the North Natuna Sea designation, he wasn’t even willing to call Indonesia by name, referring to it as “the relevant country.”

Indonesia may have been inspired to draw up its new maps by the recent defiance of sweeping Chinese territorial claims by Vietnam and the Philippines. Both of those nations recently announced oil drilling in parts of the South China Sea claimed by Beijing. The Philippine government is talking about taking bids for development of over two dozen oil, gas, and coal deposits claimed by China.

The American Interest notes that Indonesia has been “fairly accommodating” to China so far, speaking up primarily when Chinese ships harass Indonesian fishermen, but may feel obliged to take a more confrontational stance as China pushes rapidly forward with plans to dominate the entire South China Sea.


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