Sunday, January 29, 2023

The South China Sea and North Natuna Sea Security Problems: How Should Indonesia Respond?

Muh. Fadhil Pramadiansyah1

1A research intern at Research Center for Politics BRIN and currently a fourth-year International Relations student at Universitas Hasanuddin

The South China Sea issue is currently one of the major flashpoints in Asia prompted by overlapping claims, strategic sea trade routes, and the wealth of natural resources. China’s dominance in the waters is also one of the highlights because it has resulted in various problems with other countries. Many countries argue that China’s behavior in the South China Sea has violated the 1982 UNCLOS. China is considered assertive because it often enters the waters of surrounding countries to catch fish and expels fishers from other countries (Kembara, 2020, pp. 4–7). A recent report from the US Department of Defense also claims that in 2020 China had been employed its Navy, coast guard, and maritime militia to patrol the region and harass other claimants’ oil and gas operations (U.S. Department of Defense, 2021, pp. 15–16).. In addition, according to the results of the 2021 ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute survey entitled The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report, the South China Sea issue is still a particular concern for the region. The survey results show that China’s encroachment on other states’ maritime zones, militarization, and assertiveness in the South China Sea are significant concerns for ASEAN countries (Seah et al., 2021, p. 17). Hence, the impact extends to security issues for the neighboring countries, coupled with the presence of great powers who have indications of wanting to suppress the rise of China. 

China’s unilateral claims in the South China Sea are based on the Chinese government’s map version marked with a nine-dash line. That dotted lines claim the majority of the South China Sea over their claims of sovereignty, sovereign rights, and historical rights in the waters (Hayton, 2016). However, Beijing has never explained the exact coordinates of the nine-dash line, so it becomes problematic and continues to be denied by other claimants. In addition, the 2016 decision of The Permanent Court of Arbitration affirms that China does not have exclusive rights over its historical claims in the South China Sea (Jakhar, 2021). Notwithstanding, Beijing rejects the decision and sticks to its status-quo; consequently, some problems with other claimants are still happening repeatedly. However, Indonesia, which is not a claimant state in the South China Sea, has often experienced friction with China regarding security issues in Indonesian waters.

The North Natuna Sea often becomes an arena of ambivalence between Indonesian maritim security authorities and vessels from China due to illegal fishing and its patrol activities in this region. It happens because there is an intersection between the waters of North Natuna and the nine-dash line on the map issued by China’s government. Therefore, this is the basis for Beijing to carry out its activities in the North Natuna waters. For example, one of the famous feuds was in 2016 when the China Coast Guard forced the Kapal Perikanan (KP) Hiu 11 to release a fishing vessel from China that had previously been caught in the waters of the North Natuna Sea for illegal fishing (Supriyanto et al., 2016). Meanwhile, from the end of 2019 until this year, Chinese vessels still appear several times in Indonesian waters. However, a recent report says that a Chinese survey vessel had left the Natuna waters because there were indications that Beijing did not want this issue to become a topic of discussion at the ASEAN Summit, which was held last month (Dang, 2021). Despite the vessels will likely return to Indonesian waters and potentially trigger friction again.

Problems Indonesia encounter

When it comes to China’s encroachment in the Natuna waters that occasionally created a clash between Indonesian maritime security authorities and Chinese vessels, the Indonesian government often responds with a soft approach to Beijing. Jakarta responds to defuse tensions by emphasizing, “China is our friendly neighbor.” Nonetheless, some of Indonesian ministries are showing firm gestures against China’s behavior in Indonesian waters. For instance, when the quarrel occurred in the end of 2019 between the China Coast Guard and Indonesian authorities in the North Natuna Sea, only the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs took a resolute stance on the issue. Meanwhile, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, and the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investments responded to the incident in a relaxed manner (Ihsanuddin, 2020). Although finally, President Joko Widodo expressed his adamant stance on the issue, it can be seen that there are still differences in perceptions and public communication problems that occur in the cabinet regarding security issues over China’s presence in the Natuna waters.

Meanwhile, at the Hukumonline International Law Series webinar held on October 19, 2021, H.E. Ambassador Arif Havas Oegroseno, Ambassador of Indonesia to Germany, member of the Komisi I DPR Dr. Sjarifuddin Hassan, and military and defense studies expert Connie Rahakundini Bakrie provided views of Indonesia’s geopolitical and economic challenges regarding the security issues in Natuna waters and the South China Sea. Insights from each speaker emphasized the importance of good diplomacy and defense development to overcome this problem. They divided the problems from Indonesia’s domestic problems and external threats.

According to Dr. Sjarifuddin, the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) as an actor that should be the leading actor to maintain Indonesia’s maritime security is currently still weak, especially compared to the China Coast Guard. Connie also mentioned that the Indonesian government needs to reform state institutions in managing the national security marine area. It is because there are indications of overlapping authority of several Indonesian maritime security institutions. In addition, the MEF stage III (2020-2024) progress pattern only reaches below 20% per year, so that the MEF target that has been proclaimed since 2010 is in peril of failing. In other words, Indonesia needs to work harder by reforming the national defense system so that the limited budget due to budget refocusing caused by the Covid-19 pandemic can be beneficial to build a better defense system.

Furthermore, external threats are also a concern for Indonesia. China already has a Coast Guard Law that can further threaten neighboring countries. This can be seen through the contents of the law, which asserts that the China Coast Guard can forcibly expel and shoot foreign warships or government vessels if they are deemed to have violated the territorial waters of China’s jurisdiction (Okada, 2021). Thus, tensions in the region will worsen if the China Coast Guard takes such coercive actions. In addition, the three speakers warned that the potential for low-intensity war to an open war could occur if the geopolitics in the region is not appropriately managed.

What should Indonesia do?

Since South China Sea disputes have become collective issues, we need an apt strategy to deal with these issues. In this case, ASEAN leadership to encourage unity and the common perception is undoubtedly vital. Code of Conduct negotiation needs to be the main agenda for ASEAN-China to reduce tensions in the region. Indonesia should be able to play its role by taking advantage of its strategic relations with China and other claimants to prioritize common interests over their respective egos. In addition, as the 38th and 39th ASEAN Summits have emphasized the importance of maintaining order in the South China Sea to expedite COC negotiations, it is essential to see how far each member state can commit to reducing tensions and the risk of accidents, particularly for the claimants.

In the meantime, great powers who have interests in the region should also be a concern. Strategic rivalry between the US and China can increase the potential conflict and hinder conflict management efforts. Therefore, Ambassador Havas proposed that Indonesia should become a peace facilitator, one of which is by forming a trilateral strategic dialogue with the US and China to discuss strategic directions to reduce tensions in the region. It can also show Indonesia’s independence through its independent and active foreign policy. Besides, Connie emphasized the need to improve the ASEAN-China relationship and to encourage the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) collectively between ASEAN countries and China to prevent Beijing from unilaterally making its ADIZ in the South China Sea as the one already made in the East China Sea, close to Taiwan.

Eventually, Indonesia needs to develop and improve the domestic security environment. President Joko Widodo’s administration needs to well-manage the bureaucracy regarding the leading actor in maritime security and focus on developing the institution to assert our position in the North Natuna Sea. That will, at least, strengthen Indonesia’s position in the Natuna waters. Conversely, given the strong geopolitical contestation in the region, Indonesia should also strengthen its role in the region through ASEAN to mediate between disputing countries in the South China Sea and great power rivalries to prevent the worst situation happened in the region.


Dang, D. (2021, October). South China Sea Brief: October 22, 2021 . South China Sea Brief.

Hayton, B. (2016, June 21). China’s ‘Historic Rights’ in the South China Sea: Made in America? . The Diplomat.

Ihsanuddin. (2020, January 7). Menteri Beda Sikap soal Natuna, Jokowi Akhirnya Angkat Bicara. KOMPAS.Com.

Jakhar, P. (2021, July 12). Whatever happened to the South China Sea ruling? . The Interpreter.

Kembara, G. (2020). In the Absence of a Code of Conduct : An Update on the South China Sea Disputes. June, 1–7.

Okada, W. (2021, April 28). China’s Coast Guard Law Challenges Rule-Based Order . The Diplomat.

Seah, S., Ha, H. T., Martinus, M., & Thao, P. T. P. (2021). The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report.

Supriyanto, R. A., Lockman, S., & Collin, K. S. L. (2016, March 25). China’s Rift With Indonesia in the Natunas: Harbinger of Worse to Come? . The Diplomat.

U.S. Department of Defense. (2021). Military and Secuirty Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. In U.S. Department of Defense.