By Tria Dianti
China demanded that Indonesia stop oil and gas drilling at sea, alleging in an unprecedented diplomatic note about two months ago that such activities were occurring in waters it claims as part of its historic rights to the South China Sea, an Indonesian lawmaker said Wednesday.
In a separate diplomatic communiqué, China also objected to a joint Indonesia-United States military exercise held in August, according to Muhammad Farhan, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the House of Representatives.
“The letter conveyed China’s stance on offshore drilling activities in the North Natuna Sea bordering the South China Sea,” Farhan told BenarNews, using the name Indonesia gives to the disputed waterway.
“Their [China’s] argument was that the drilling location encroached on the nine-dash line. Naturally, the Indonesian government rejected that because we abide by the UNCLOS,” he said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The nine-dash line is a boundary that China puts on its official maps to demarcate its claims to most of the South China Sea. Several neighboring countries dispute those claims.
These also are not recognized under UNCLOS, which requires governments to seek permission in advance for marine scientific research in another state’s exclusive economic zone, a requirement China often ignores.
China says it has ‘historic rights’ to the region, a position unsupported by international law. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as well.
Farhan said he did not see the diplomatic notes himself but was briefed on their content and reports by the National Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), Indonesia’s coast guard. The Tuna block, where the Indonesian government in 2007 gave a private British firm a contract to explore, has estimated reserves of 100 million barrels of oil, according to a Russian operator that joined appraisal drilling.
China’s objection to this work, which has not been reported previously, was conveyed to Indonesia in September as its research ship was lingering in an area of the South China Sea that Jakarta says is part of its EEZ off the Natuna Islands, according to Farhan.
“The letters did not contain any threat, but in my personal view, we must treat their attitude as a threat, because for the first time China had sent a diplomatic communiqué on territorial claims in the South China Sea or North Natuna,” he said.
Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for the Indonesian foreign ministry, declined to comment on Farhan’s revelation and the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta did not immediately respond to an email query.
‘Torn between its interests’
True to its policy of non-alignment, Indonesia has maintained a studious silence amid China’s increasing militarization in the South China Sea. However, Jakarta has loudly complained in recent weeks about AUKUS, a newly struck security and defense alliance between Australia, the U.S. and U.K. in the Indo-Pacific region.
In August, Indonesian authorities deployed several navy ships to its exclusive economic zone in the North Natuna Sea, but played down the presence of a 3,400-ton Chinese survey ship in the area that overlaps with the nine-dash line.
China’s protests posed a dilemma for Indonesia, said Suzie Sudarman, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia.
“How will the government deal with this while at the same time we need help from them [China]?” Suzie told BenarNews, referring to the Southeast Asian giant’s economic dependence on China.
“Indonesia is torn between its interests, creating the impression that it is unable to make up its mind.”
Teuku Rezasyah, an international relations professor at Padjadjaran University in Bandung, said Indonesia must start to be firm in dealing with China.
“We have the right [to drill], it’s in Indonesia’s EEZ. China has been touting its peaceful rise, but it’s acting up in many places,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile last month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping told a summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that his country was not seeking hegemony.
Beijing was not protesting only about the oil drilling.
In another diplomatic note, it expressed objections to joint exercises involving 4,500 Indonesian and U.S. military personnel in August. This year’s edition of the annual Garuda Shield exercise was the largest involving the two militaries, officials said.
With regard to these exercises, “the Chinese government expressed their concern about security [and] stability in the region,” Indonesian lawmaker Farhan said.
China’s protest could force Indonesia to conduct more joint military exercises with other major powers including Australia, Russia and the United States around strategic waters, Rezasyah said.
On Wednesday, Indonesia and other members of ASEAN kicked off the regional bloc’s first-ever joint drills with ships from the Russian navy in waters off Sumatra Island.
“Indonesia can also promote international tourism in Natuna by opening direct flights to Natuna, visa-free, or forge sister island cooperation with other countries,” Rezasyah said, referring to means that Jakarta could use to assert the country’s sovereignty.