Indonesia has opened a military base on the southern edge of the South China Sea, in territorial waters claimed by China and several other countries.
The base was opened Dec. 18 on the remote island of Natuna Besar, part of the Natuna Islands one of Indonesia’s northernmost areas, located between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo.
Indonesian Defense Force chief, Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, said in a speech at the military base that the outpost is to act as a deterrent against any potential security threats, particularly at the border areas, Kyodo Newsreported.
Indonesia does not accept Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea which include part of the resource-rich waters surrounding the islands.
The waters off the Natuna Islands is home to fishing and natural gas reserves, which Indonesia says it owns.
The two countries have had minor skirmishes in the area over the years, including three incidents in 2016 where Chinese fishing boats were caught by Indonesian patrol boats for illegally fishing within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Natuna Sea.
In one case, Indonesian authorities detained a 300-ton Chinese fishing vessel. But it was released hours later when a Chinese coast guard vessel rammed the boat, forcing it free. At that time, Beijing said the fishermen were engaging in “normal activities” in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”
Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said on Dec. 19 that the country would defend its sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, an area home to almost 170,000 Indonesians.
“If you want us to fight, together we will do it,” he said.
The base currently stations a few hundred military personnel, and will be equipped with a surface-to-air missile defense system, the Indonesian military said, according to Benar News.
The military also flagged the development of additional bases in other “strategic islands,” Kyodo reported.
Dispute with Beijing
In 2017, Indonesia issued an updated national map in which the waters within the country’s EEZ to the north of the Natuna Islands was renamed the North Nortuna Sea. The area was previously labeled as being part of the South China Sea.
This update builds upon a 2002 name change, in which Indonesia renamed waters to the south of the Natuna Islands within the country’s EEZ the Nortuna Sea.
China, following the 2017 name change, objected to the idea, saying it led to a “complication and expansion of the dispute, and affects peace and stability,” and harmed relations between Jakarta and Beijing. Indonesia, however, maintained that it had the right to name waters that fall within its territory, which included the North Nortuna Sea.
China has overlapping claims over the South China Sea—home to one of the world’s major shipping routes—with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as Taiwan. Indonesia does not have claims over the sea.