Asia's Game of Thrones
Indonesia Stakes Its Claim in the South China Sea

With the stroke of a pen and the release of a new map, Indonesia just made the South China Sea a little more complicated. Reuters:

Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea on Friday, the latest act of resistance by Southeast Asian nations to China’s territorial ambitions in the maritime region.

Seen by analysts as an assertion of Indonesian sovereignty, part of the renamed sea is claimed by China under its contentious maritime boundary, known as the ‘nine-dash line’, that encompasses most of the resource-rich sea. […]

Indonesia insists it’s a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute but has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, detaining Chinese fishermen and expanding its military presence in the area over the past 18 months.

The renaming of the sea does not carry any legal weight, but it is an intriguing political signal of where Jakarta’s policy may be heading. Under President Joko Widodo, Indonesia has had a fairly accommodating stance to China. Apart from the occasional public spat when Chinese ships have encroached on Indonesian fishing waters, Widodo has preferred to minimize the dispute, positioning Indonesia as an “honest broker” while courting Chinese investment and seeking a balance between Washington and Beijing.

Is Jakarta now preparing for a tougher stance, as Chinese interference grows more brazen? Beijing already sounds angry and alarmed by what Indonesia’s move may portend. “Certain countries’ so-called renaming is totally meaningless,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry in response to the news, urging Indonesia to “meet China halfway and properly maintain the present good situation in the South China Sea region, which has not come easily.”

And Indonesia isn’t the only country China has to worry about these days: several other rivals around the South China Sea have also made a pointed show of resistance of late. Vietnam, for instance, just gave the green light approving two oil exploration projects in defiance of China’s claims. And even the Philippines, which has been one of Beijing’s most acquiescent neighbors under President Duterte, is preparing to re-start several energy exploration projects in the sea, according to Reuters:

Drilling for oil and natural gas on the Reed Bank in the South China Sea may resume before the end of the year, a Philippine energy official said on Wednesday, as the government prepares to offer new blocks to investors in bidding in December. […]

He said a directive from the Department of Foreign Affairs directing the Department of Energy to resume oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea was already in the works.

Things have been relatively quiet in the South China Sea over the past 12 months. But that could be about to change, as China’s neighbors assert their sovereignty rights more forcefully and Indonesia joins the anti-China resistance.

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