US may upset Beijing after it backs Indonesian claim on South China Sea near Natuna islands
China has previously objected to Indonesia’s decision to rename a section of the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis accepted Indonesia renaming an area previously considered part of the South China Sea during his visit to the country – potentially upsetting China.
“Certainly Indonesia, as a fulcrum, a maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area, is critical,” Mattis told a joint press conference after bilateral talks with Indonesian defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.
He also expressed a readiness to embrace the name newly assigned by Indonesia to waters around the Natuna Islands.
“We can help maintain maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, the North Natuna Sea,” Mattis added. “This is something that we look forward to doing.”
In July, the Indonesian government unveiled an updated national map in which the country’s exclusive economic zone north of the Natuna Islands had been renamed the North Natuna Sea. It was previously part of the South China Sea.
In 2002, Indonesia renamed the section of the South China Sea within its EEZ the Natuna Sea, except for the waters north of the Natuna Islands.
And in 2015, it called upon the US to help host military exercises near the sparsely populated archipelago.
With the latest name change, South China Sea is no longer used for any part of Indonesia’s territorial waters.
While China recognises Indonesian sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, it insists the two countries have overlapping claims to maritime rights and interests in the area that still need to be resolved – a claim that Indonesia rejects.
Immediately after the name change, China expressed opposition to the move, saying changing an “internationally accepted name” resulted in the “complication and expansion of the dispute, and affects peace and stability” and will not be “conducive” for the peaceful relationship between Jakarta and Beijing.
Indonesia insisted, however, that it had the right to name its territorial waters and that the North Natuna Sea falls within its territory.
Mattis earlier expressed concern about China’s assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
In the East China Sea, China and Taiwan both claim a group of uninhabited islets called the Senkakus administered by Japan.
And in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which over one-third of global trade passes, China has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The term, having been promoted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since 2007 when he initiated the quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, has grown in usage over the past few years.
It is said that regional architecture covers a broader, democratic-led region in contrast to the Asia-Pacific, where some countries are gripped by China’s influence.
Some political analysts view the Indo-Pacific concept an attempt to move the focus away from China to emphasise India and Indian Ocean countries including Indonesia.