JAKARTA — In a bid to assert its sovereignty, Indonesia will seek to change the name of the South China Sea to the Natuna Sea in the area within 200 nautical miles (370km) of its Natuna Islands, which have seen clashes between government vessels and illegal fishermen, said a senior official.
Mr Ahmad Santosa, the Chief of Task Force 115, an agency combating illegal fishing, said late Wednesday (Aug 17) the proposal will “be given to the United Nations”.
“If no one objects … then it will be officially the Natuna Sea,” he was quoted as saying by Kyodo News. The plan would involve renaming the sea surrounding the Natuna Islands, which lie to the north-west of the Indonesian part of Borneo, within Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Under international maritime law, states have the right to exploit resources in their own EEZs. The islands’ mayor, Mr Hamid Rizal, said the change was aimed at helping people to understand that section of the waters around the Natunas belongs to Indonesia, and to help fight illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in Indonesian waters.
The government of President Joko Widodo has taken a hardline stance against illegal fishing, partly driven by the need for Indonesia to show its neighbours, including China, that it is in control of its vast territory of 17,000 islands.
Commenting on why Jakarta has moved to rename the waterway, Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute told TODAY: “Indonesia’s key considerations include the protection of its sovereignty, preservation of its territorial integrity, curbing the rise in illegal fishing in the waters around the Natuna Islands, and responding to deep-seated nationalist sentiments in Indonesian society. From Indonesia’s perspective, renaming the South China Sea to the Natuna Sea removes all doubt that the waters surrounding the Natuna islands belong solely and unambiguously to Indonesia.”
Tensions between Jakarta and Beijing have escalated in recent months as Chinese fishing boats have clashed with Indonesian government vessels.
China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea were dealt a blow last month by an international tribunal that ruled that Beijing had no historic rights to the resources within the waters.
Unlike several of its South-east Asian neighbours, Indonesia has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea and does not contest ownership of any territory there. But Beijing’s claims overlap Indonesia’s EEZ around the Natunas.
Indonesia marked its Independence Day on Wednesday by sinking 60 foreign ships seized for fishing illegally in the country’s waters.
Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said the ships were sunk at eight locations across the Indonesian archipelago. She has organised the destruction of more than 200 illegal fishing boats since 2014.
Ms Pudjiastuti stated on Wednesday that “we do see at the moment the deterrent effect”.
“I think it is already quite a strong message” to foreign countries and their fishing fleets, she added.
Besides sinking the ships, the Minister also held a groundbreaking ceremony for a detention centre for illegal fishing. The building will have a capacity of 300 to 500 people, and it is estimated to be finished before the end of this year.
Mr Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based analyst with Concord Consulting, told TODAY there is no reason why Indonesia cannot rename the waters. However getting an international recognition is a different matter. “The Philippines tries to do the same with what it calls the West Philippines Sea but common usage continues to refer to (it as) the South China Sea.”
Dr Mustafa of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute added that while China is likely to see this move as an act of provocation, the name change is unlikely to result in an outright naval confrontation.
“This is because both China and Indonesia are mindful of deepening economic engagement in their bilateral relations,” he said.