Does Indonesia have a maritime boundary with China? Jakarta’s official position is that it does not. Unfortunately for Jakarta, there’s evidence China believes that it does. This author’s discussions during a recent visit to Jakarta and an article by Gen. Moeldoko, commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces, in The Wall Street Journal in April 2014 suggest there are different views on the question within Indonesia’s foreign policy establishment. But avoiding the issue won’t make it disappear. The most likely interpretation of the dashes in China’s “U-shaped line” (also known as the nine-dash line) clearly overlaps with Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone northeast of the Natuna Islands. It is an area rich in both fish and hydrocarbons.
There have already been confrontations between Chinese and Indonesian vessels in this overlapping zone. One occurred on June 23, 2010, when an Indonesian Navy vessel seized a Chinese fishing boat there. In response to the arrests of the crew, a Chinese fishery law enforcement command vessel, the Yuzheng 311, pointed a large-caliber machine gun at the Indonesian ship and forced it into releasing the fishing boat. Two weeks after this incident, Indonesia filed a statement with the United Nations formally rejecting the map of the U-shaped line that China had filed with the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in May 2009. The Indonesian statement argued that the line “lacks international legal basis” and “is tantamount to upset the United Nations Law of the Sea.”
Although China’s exact intentions remain unclear, the behavior of some of its state agencies suggests that it does regard the line as a boundary of some kind. This is apparent from the June 2012 announcement by CNOOC, the China National Offshore Oil Company, to auction off oil and gas exploration blocks within an area that closely follows the U-shaped line. CNOOC’s actions had a precedent in 1992 when it leased a block of seabed off the Vietnamese coast, exactly adjacent to Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone, to an American oil company, Crestone.
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