Indonesian Lawmakers Call for New Base in S. China Sea
Indonesia's House of Representatives has called for the construction of a new military base in the Natuna Islands as a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
The House's Commission on Defense and Foreign Affairs called for a new base following a diplomatic incident on March 19, in which an Indonesian patrol boat attempted to arrest a Chinese fishing vessel allegedly operating illegally inside the Indonesian exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natunas. The arrest was thwarted by a Chinese coast guard vessel, which allegedly rammed the fishing boat in order to prevent its capture. Indonesian forces retained the fishing vessel's crew in custody.
"The development of a military base on Natuna Island is important for the defense system in the central region of Indonesia, which shares its borders with many countries in the South China Sea," said Commission chairman Mahfud Siddiq on Thursday, urging action on an earlier plan from 2015 to construct a base.
Parts of the Natuna Islands' EEZ lie within China's “nine dash line” claim in the South China Sea, but in a surprise move in November, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei acknowledged Indonesia's administration of the archipelago as legitimate and uncontested - in stark contrast to Chinese policy towards the Spratly Islands and the Paracels. The Chinese acknowledgement followed a threat by Jakarta to join the Philippines' suit at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague over occupation of geographic features in the Spratly archipelago.
Notably, Hong's acknowledgement did not mention Indonesia's EEZ, but by recognizing Indonesia's right to the Natuna Islands, the legimacy of the 200-mile boundary of the EEZ was implied. Indonesian lawmakers viewed the March 19 incident as an incursion on the legitimacy of that claim, in addition to the alleged illegality of the fishing vessel’s operations.
The proposed base in the Natuna chain would not be the first recent uptick in Indonesia's military presence there. Last year, President Joko Widodo ordered fighter planes and P3-C maritime surveillance aircraft to the islands. The army garrison on the islands has been growing as well, reinforced by American-supplied Apache attack helicopters.
In addition to its fisheries, the EEZ surrounding Natuna is home to multiple natural gas plays with commercial potential.