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Is Indonesia Beijing’s Next Target in the South China Sea?

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Filed: Timeline

By Victor Robert Lee
October 02, 2014

NATUNA ISLAND – What might be called “homeland security” is tight at Natuna Island, and it should be – this may be the next bite China takes out of the South China Sea.


Upon landing at Natuna (also called Natuna Besar), Indonesia’s largest island within the hotly contested South China Sea, foreigners must register and provide copies of their passports, even though all arriving flights are domestic.


Given that Beijing has recently promulgated a map with boundaries that claim a swath of sea that may include the Natuna Islands as part of its territory, the increased security is understandable ... Over the past two years, China has reinforced its territorial quest through intimidation, naval patrols, localized blockades, oil rig placements, ramming of fishing vessels, and construction of facilities on numerous small islands and sub-surface shoals.


With Beijing’s recent inclusion of the area around Natuna in its newly sanctioned maps (and on Chinese passports), Indonesia’s incoming President Joko Widodo may find China’s aggression to be one of the first items in his inbox when he assumes office in October.

He will also find that the air force base at Natuna as well as the “naval base” there are unlikely to provide much front-line defense. The air force base has an abundance of housing quarters – more than thirty small buildings – but only three modest aircraft hangars. The fact that there are no military aircraft visible at the base may demonstrate stealth, or perhaps the absence of aircraft.


The only navy vessels on the island are two small and lightly armed patrol boats and a rigid inflatable boat (RIB), all tied to a deteriorating pier.


In March of this year, Indonesia’s government for the first time acknowledged that China’s unilateral claims on most of the South China Sea include parts of Indonesia’s Riau province, to which Natuna and other islands belong.


The Natuna archipelago has been the subject of an Indonesia-China tug-of-war before. Until the 1970s the majority of Natuna residents were ethnic Chinese. Deadly anti-Chinese riots plagued Indonesia in the 1960s, early 1980s, and again in 1998, leading to a decline of the ethnic Chinese population on Natuna from an estimated 5,000-6,000 to somewhere over 1,000 currently.


As part of a nationwide transmigration initiative, the Indonesian government in the 1980s started to relocate ethnically Malay Indonesians to Natuna, for the stated reasons of importing skills and relieving population pressures on the overcrowded main island of Java, and, as perceived by local Chinese Indonesians, for the unstated reason of swamping the ethnic Chinese population with “real Indonesians”; that is, people of Malay ethnicity, who now number approximately 80,000 in the Natuna Islands group.


At the time of the 1996 Indonesian military exercises to defend the Natuna area, a prescient regional specialist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, was quoted as saying, “China respects strength. If they see you as being weak, they’ll eat you alive.” Dr. Anwar went on to become an internationally recognized scholar and is now an advisor to Indonesia’s vice-president; her words ring true today in the South China Sea.


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