The South China Sea (SCS) is a semi-enclosed sea surrounded by a number of states and territories, namely China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and to a certain extent, Taiwan. By far the SCS could be regarded among the world’s most-claimed maritime areas. Its core area includes the islands of Pratas, Macclesfield Bank, Paracels and Spratlys. China declared its claim upon the SCS based on its “nine-dash line” map encircling almost the entire SCS based on China’s “historical waters”.
In May 2009 China submitted a claim before the United Nations (UN), that several islands, which include Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, Paracel and others should be included within its territory, combined with occasional references to the “historic waters”. In April 2012, the Philippines Navy caught eight Chinese fishing vessels in Scarborough Shoal located 220 kilometers west from the nation’s Luzon island. In January 2013 the Philippines raised objection to China’s claims to the Permanent Court of Arbitration demanding cancellation of China’s proposed map.
China has reiterated they will not obey the court ruling as it did not acknowledge its jurisdiction in the case, and refused to attend the entire proceedings in The Hague, the Netherlands.
So instead of moving away from the disputed area, Chinese military and non-military vessels have regularly undertaken activities to strengthen their de facto control of the SCS. This condition has brought several legal implications to the neighboring adjacent states surrounding the SCS, especially ASEAN members.
China is expected to eventually strengthen application of its domestic law in claiming several of those areas, thus more disputes may arise between China and other claimant states. The Chinese aggressive response to the international tribunal’s ruling might also result in further legal implications for less affected states like Indonesia.
While the SCS dispute does not presently directly affect Indonesia, this scenario might not be the same in future years. As an archipelagic state, Indonesia is entitled to draw baselines connecting the outermost point of its outermost islands. Although Indonesia does not formally claim any of the disputed islands located in the SCS, Indonesia has sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, which are adjacent to the SCS.
These islands are vital in establishing Indonesia as the world’s largest archipelagic state. As Natuna islands are in the middle of the SCS, Indonesia inevitably shares its maritime borders with Vietnam and Malaysia -- the Natuna isles are between Peninsula Malaysia and the Malaysian Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.
While agreements have been reached over delineating the continental shelf between states, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) delimitations remain unresolved. If China strengthens its claims and keeps asserting its military power within the area, China and Indonesia may be involved in future disagreements on maritime delimitations around Natuna Islands.
If a straight line is drawn from the coast of the Malaysian state of Terengganu towards Sarawak, obviously it would cross the Natunas. Apart from geographical connections, the Natuna Islands have always been historically influenced by the Malay states of Peninsula Malaysia.
The first ruling government in Natuna was established in 1597 by royalties from the Malay sultanates of Pattani and Johor-Riau. This proved the existence of close relationship between the rulers of Natuna with the Malay sultanates of Peninsula Malaysia. Due to these historical links and geographical proximities, questions may arise as to why these islands are not with Malaysia.
Would these historical ties possessed by Malaysia and China affect Indonesia’s sovereignty over these islands?
Based on history, Malaysia may have rights to claim sovereignty over the Natunas. Nevertheless, claims were never made and until now, Malaysia acknowledges Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands. International law dictates that a state may acquire territory by way of an “actual exercise” of sovereignty on a particular territory without clear objections from other countries. Thus Malaysia’s claim, if any, over the Natuna Islands may be rebutted on the fact that it has remained silent over Indonesia’s administration on those islands throughout almost 60 years.
Prior to the announcement of the above tribunal ruling in The Hague, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo had said that while Indonesia lies considerably near the SCS, Indonesia does not have direct interests in the SCS. However, skirmishes with Chinese vessels led Indonesia to reiterate sovereignty over Natuna Islands, repeating claims it said had been conveyed earlier to Chinese authorities way back in 1996.
Indeed some areas of Indonesia’s EEZ in the Natunas do overlap with the Chinese “nine-dash” line. With Beijing’s non-acknowledgment of the above ruling, Indonesia should proactively formulate a legal and policy framework in exercising its sovereign rights over its EEZ in the Natuna Islands against any possible future Chinese claim. It is never too late for Indonesia to continuously protect its territorial integrity and remind other states of its patriotic mantra – that the unitary republic is non-negotiable, or “NKRI harga mati”.
Dhiana Puspitawati (PhD) teaches law at the Faculty of Law, Brawijaya University, Malang, East Java. Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph.D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.