Indonesian President Joko Widodo looks out to sea in a December 2018 government handout photo.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo rides aboard a naval vessel in a December 2018 government handout photo. Photo: AFP

Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, President Joko Widodo has followed through on a two-year-old pledge to strengthen Indonesia’s military presence on Natuna Besar, the largest of several hundred small islands on the southern fringe of the waterway.

Indonesian officials familiar with the plan say the 1,720 kilometer island — the closest large land mass to an increasingly assertive China — will soon be equipped with a surface-to-air missile system, elements of a marine battalion and upgraded air and naval base facilities. The military base was opened in mid-December.

In 2017, the government produced an updated national map in which the country’s 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) north of the Natuna islands was renamed the North Natuna Sea – a move that subsequently drew protests from China.

In a formal letter to the Indonesian embassy in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry insisted that the two countries have overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea and that renaming the area would not alter that fact.

China said changing the name had complicated and expanded the “dispute” and affected peace and stability in the region, an assertion Jakarta rejected out of hand. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi failed to even mention the tiff in this week’s annual New Year review.

Indonesia is not a claimant to the disputed Spratly islands and does not recognize any boundary issue with China, whose tongue-shaped nine dash line map enveloping most of the South China sea is contested by various rival claimants, including Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute
Source: Foreign Policy Research Institute

But after several minor incidents Jakarta initially sought to downplay, tensions escalated in March 2016 when China’s Coast Guard seized back a fishing boat detained by Indonesian authorities in what Beijing said was “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”

What irked Indonesia officials is that two heavily-armed coastguard vessels penetrated the country’s 12 nautical mile territorial limit to force the return of the trawler, which had been caught by an Indonesian fisheries protection craft deep inside the EEZ.

Two other Chinese fishing boats were intercepted in May and June 2016, but there has been no further cases publicized since, an indication that Beijing may have decided at least for now to treat Indonesia differently from some of its smaller neighbors.

Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, however, continues to accuse China of committing transnational crime by bribing the owners of Indonesian fishing boats to offload their catch on to Chinese mother ships positioned just outside the EEZ.

Pudjiastuti banned all foreign fishing boats from Indonesian waters soon after joining Widodo’s Cabinet in 2014, saying they had not abided by their joint venture agreements and had cost the cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenues.

Sources who track the movement of China’s fishing fleet are astonished at how long its trawlers remain at sea north and northeast of Indonesia’s archipelago waters, relying on technology to determine the ever-changing patterns of fish biomass.

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China’s Maritime Militia, also known as the Third Sea Force. Photo: Facebook

The fleet is shadowed by China’s Maritime Militia, a so-called “Third Sea Force” which answers to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chain of command and has been largely involved in so-called ”grey zone” operations against Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

Widodo’s pledge to beef up Indonesia’s maritime defenses underlines his government’s determination to uphold national sovereignty while settling about a dozen outstanding maritime border issues with Malaysia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Australia.

Analysts believe the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) will deploy Norway’s advanced Kongsberg Gruppen medium-range missile system (AMRAAM) to Natuna Besar, providing an air defense umbrella covering more than 100 square kilometers.

The newly acquired weapon is based on US defense company Raytheon’s air-to-air AMRAAM, which Washington approved for sale to Indonesia in 2016, at the time the air force took delivery from the US of an additional 24 refurbished F-16 fighters to boost its front-line air defenses.

There has also been talk of Natuna Besar serving as the base for some of the Indonesian Army’s eight new AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, which are armed with AGM 114R3 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.

According to military sources, the main argument for the US selling the Apache to Indonesia in the first place was its perceived role in safeguarding the free flow of shipping through the pirate-infested and strategically important Malacca Straits.

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President Joko Widodo aboard a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: AFP

That is not the only strategic choke point. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in traffic through the Sunda Strait, separating Indonesia’s islands of Java and Sumatra, as the world’s shipping lines seek to avoid congestion in the Malacca waterway.

The Indonesian government plans to lengthen Natuna Besar’s 2,500-meter runway, which is currently used by both commercial and military aircraft, and to build a larger parking apron, more hangars and improved refueling facilities.

Indonesia is also in the market for Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules cargo aircraft, which can be quickly configured for prolonged maritime patrol duties with belly-mounted radar and palletized roll-on, roll-off sensor stations.

The air force is also likely to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to the island to expand its reconnaissance abilities over the East Natuna gas-fields and in the busy shipping lanes that cross the northern approaches to the Java Sea.

Diplomatic sources say Indonesia is now reconsidering its decision to buy four Wing Loong 1 UAVs from the Aviation Industry Corporation of China for its UAV squadron in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, 460 kilometers southeast of Natuna Besar.

Instead, it is now looking at Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) Anka drones, which can remain in the air for up to 24 hours and have already proved themselves in surveillance and armed reconnaissance missions over Syria.

Kalimantan’s UAV squadron was activated in 2007 following the controversial purchase of four Israeli-made AeroStar drones equipped with electro-optic and infrared sensors for surveillance missions over a range of 250 kilometers.

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An unmanned aerial vehicle in Indonesia. Photo: Facebook

Indonesia acquired the AeroStar system through a Philippine trading company, despite criticism from politicians and Islamic groups about dealing with a country with which Jakarta does not have diplomatic ties.

The AeroStar is a more sophisticated version of a UAV, covertly operated by Israeli technicians, that was hired by current presidential candidate and then special forces chief Prabowo Subianto to track eleven botanists abducted by Papuan rebels in 1996.

The Indonesian Navy has taken over most of the patrols in the North Natuna Sea since the rash of incidents with China in 2016, but sources familiar with the military build-up say it will take several years for Natuna Besar to evolve into a full-fledged base.

That will mean stockpiling fuel on the island to improve the range and effectiveness of naval operations, in addition to the two oil tankers that have recently been added to the fleet to boost mid-ocean fuel replenishment.

For all the attention on Natuna Besar, analysts say defense planners still have some way to go to put together the pieces and come up with a comprehensive and cohesive maritime strategy.

“They still don’t have a maritime domain awareness doctrine,” says one foreign expert. “They understand what they have to do, but they need to decide who takes the lead. Systemizing and codifying information-sharing is a serious business and there’s no room for inter-service rivalry.”

But on one overarching issue, which also happens to lie at the heart of Widodo’s foreign policy, he has little doubt: “They are really serious about maintaining and protecting their sovereignty.”