AT least three times this year, Indonesian authorities have confronted Chinese fishing vessels in the waters near the remote Natuna Islands, an area whose 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) overlaps China’s expansive nine-dash line. In the wake of the run-ins, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited the islands and promised to boost defense, fishing and natural-gas production in the area. Despite its provocative fishing activities in the South China Sea, however, China is not the sole target of Indonesia’s defensive measures; Jakarta has also made a public show of destroying dozens of Malaysian and Vietnamese vessels found fishing in the area.
Though the Natuna Islands are just one of many regions that Indonesia wants to secure, they have become a priority for Jakarta. The country controls most of the waters approaching the Malacca Strait through the Natunas’ EEZ. Moreover, the route is key to east-west trade (especially for the economies of Northeast Asia), and its importance will only grow: by the mid-2020s, the Asia-Pacific region’s demand for oil will likely rise by at least 5 million barrels per day, meaning that nearly one-fifth of the world’s oil will pass through the region. In addition, the islands provide access to vital resources. The fisheries near the Natunas offer opportunities for Indonesia to expand its fishing beyond core areas where overfishing has devastated stocks of several species. After the incidents with Chinese fishing boats, Jakarta announced plans to raise the catch in the Natuna Sea from 9.3 percent of sustainable levels to 40 percent by mid-2017—up to 1 million tons of production. Jakarta also plans to relocate 400 fishing vessels from Java by the end of October and up to 6,000 over the long term. The Natuna EEZ boasts the West Natuna Basin, already an important area for natural gas production. Furthermore, the East Natuna Field, located in the northern part of the Natuna EEZ, is the largest untapped natural gas field in Asia, containing an estimated 1.3 trillion cubic meters of recoverable natural gas. Indonesia is banking on the East Natuna Field—in addition to those on Papua—to expand its natural-gas production by as much as 70 percent over the next decade.
Given all that the islands have to offer, it is not surprising that Indonesian military leaders have been seeking to bolster defense of the Natuna Islands for the past two years. On July 13, Indonesia’s minister of defense pledged to send warships and a fighter jet to the area, deploy surface-to-air missiles, and improve ports and airstrips. But boosting Indonesia’s presence in the Natunas will take time. And in the meantime, incursions by Chinese (as well as Vietnamese and Malaysian) vessels will continue.
©2015 STRATFOR GLOBAL INTELLIGENCE