JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network): The Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) has hailed last month’s completion of a six-month drilling project on Indonesia’s continental shelf in the North Natuna Sea as a “victory” over China’s constant objections.
In the past two years, interventions from China through a “grey hull” naval approach and diplomatic threats became increasingly common around the Natuna Islands.
The archipelagic regency and the surrounding waters are located between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Borneo to the south of the South China Sea, one of the most disputed bodies of water in the world.
China has unlawfully claimed ownership of the sea as well as part of Indonesia’s territorial waters and seabed, over which the country has the right to conduct economic activities like oil and gas exploration and fishing.
This included contractual activities with foreign companies, such as the United Kingdom’s independent Harbour Energy and Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft, which operated offshore drills in the Indonesian regency.
The island chain was constantly under guard by the Indonesian Navy and Bakamla, which essentially functions as the national coast guard. The drilling activity at two natural gas appraisal wells in the Tuna Block began in June and was completed in late November.
Bakamla chief Vice Adm Aan Kurnia said Indonesian patrol vessels were occasionally found shadowed by Chinese Coast Guard vessels 4-5 nautical miles from the drilling site. But on the completion of drilling last month, he said Indonesia had “scored a point”.
Aan added that the agency would continue to enforce the nation’s territorial rights and report any disagreements to the Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister as well as the Foreign Ministry.
“The point is, they [Chinese vessels] did not disturb us physically and the drilling was completed,” Aan told reporters on Wednesday (Dec 22) during a year-end review of the agency’s work.
Following the successful completion of the appraisal drilling, Harbour Energy is seeking to finalise its investment to develop the Tuna Block in 2023 with initial production planned for 2026, according to industry publication Energy Voice.
Drilling continued despite the movement of Chinese research ship Haiyang Dizhi-10 in the area between August and October, which caught the attention of NGOs like the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI).
Jakarta and Beijing have reciprocally summoned their envoys over the past two years, mostly discreetly, to lodge protests over the activities in Natuna waters.
In some instances, bilateral tensions have flared from hostile engagements at sea, underscoromg Asean's insistence on the need for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
The North Natuna Sea is located along the southern edge of the hotly contested body of water, over which a handful of South-East Asian nations have overlapping claims with China, including Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Beijing made sweeping claims over the South China Sea, which an international tribunal invalidated in 2016.
Indonesia is not a claimant in the dispute, but China has insisted it has a claim in “relevant waters”, a term that has been rejected for its incompatibility with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Eddy Pratomo, an international law professor at Diponegoro University, said Indonesia was coming from a much stronger legal standpoint that allowed it to ignore China’s repeated protests that the drilling site encroached the nine-dash line underpinning its claims.
“With the completion of drilling, China’s protests are now completely irrelevant, because the objective has been achieved,” Eddy told The Jakarta Post.
Bakamla chief Aan said he had invited his counterparts from five Asean nations to a meeting in February 2022 in Batam, Riau Islands province, to “share experiences and foster brotherhood” among the countries facing similar challenges in the context of China’s claims.
He said it was important to present a coordinated approach to such incidents, especially following reports on the presence of China’s maritime militia in the waters of the South China Sea claimants.
China reportedly disrupted similar drilling projects in Malaysian and Vietnamese waters this year.
Indonesia has invited Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam to convene next year as part of the Asean Coast Guard Forum, which met virtually in October.
“We will share experiences on how to respond in the field when we face the same ‘disturbance,’” he said, without mentioning China by name.
The Chinese Embassy in Jakarta was not immediately available for comment.