In a sign of Indonesia’s increased focus on its economic interests in the country’s Natuna Islands region, the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Udara, or TNI-AU) is readying the deployment of four units of its Korps Pasukan Khas (PASKHAS) special forces ground corps to the largest of the island cluster, Pulau Natuna Besar.
The units being deployed to the island will be equipped with the Rheinmetall-produced Oerlikon Skyshield air defense (AD) system, a modular system that includes a 35mm automatic cannon. Moreover, the TNI-AU has also placed a funding request for the acquisition of additional medium-range AD systems for deployment on Pulau Natuna Besar, as well as facilities capable of accommodating up to eight fighter aircraft at Ranai air base on Riau Island.
Earlier, in September 2015, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu announced that the TNI-AU would be deploying 2,000 additional personnel, plus unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to the Natuna Islands region, while in February the armed forces (TNI) followed up this statement by announcing plans to locate the Indonesian Navy’s third submarine base on Pulau Natuna Besar.
The shifting posture toward the Natuna Islands and increased military presence in the region are indicative of worries in Jakarta about China’s bold claims in the South China Sea.
China has laid a broad claim to the vast body of the South China Sea under its “Nine-Dash Line” (revised more broadly in 2014 to 10 dashes), which encompasses some 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer body of water. In an effort to shift the debate over ownership of the waters and various fishing rights, undersea energy fields, islands, outcroppings and shoals from a de jure one to a de facto reality, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has begun deploying its advanced HQ-9 surface-to-air AD systems on Woody Island after previously stationing its J-11 combat aircraft (a Chinese spinoff of the Su-27) on the island.
While Indonesia has no claims drawing it into the various South China Sea territorial spats, it has nonetheless borne witness to the aggressive nature of China’s stance in the region.
On March 19, a maritime incident occurred when a 300-ton Chinese fishing vessel – Kway Fey – was seized by the Indonesian Ministry of Fishery and Marine Affairs (KKP) for fishing within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While the KKP vessel Hiu was towing the fishing boat back to base, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel arrived and rammed the Kway Fey, forcing it to stop in waters on the edge of Indonesia’s 12-nautical-mile sea territory off Pulau Natuna Besar. During this time, a second Chinese Coast Guard vessel appeared on the scene, forcing Indonesian officers on the Kway Fey to abandon the boat and allow Chinese Coast Guard personnel to commandeer the ship and sail it out of Indonesian waters.
Indonesia has generally had sound relations with Beijing in the past, and even conducted its first joint military exercise with the PLA in June 2011. But the latest incident was a reminder to Indonesian officials of just how aggressively China acts in a region Beijing views as its own territorial waters. China’s southernmost dash claim in the South China Sea runs up against the Natuna Islands and thus will continue to spawn disagreements over fishing rights between the two regional actors.
With the South China Sea home to vital shipping lanes through which $5.3 trillion worth of global trade transits, the stakes for the region – and the international community at large – are high.
Indonesia’s growing frustration over China’s maritime assertiveness – and its current inability to respond through maritime law enforcement or military means – is even higher.
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