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Politics

Jakarta disregards Beijing, renames part of South China Sea

Indonesia first to invoke 2016 decision by Permanent Court of Arbitration

Indonesian officials show off the latest official map of the country, with the newly designated North Natuna Sea. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs)

JAKARTA -- Citing a decision last year of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Europe that has been ignored by China, Indonesia has renamed its exclusive economic zone in the southwestern part of the South China Sea.

Jakarta revealed the newly designated North Natuna Sea on Friday when it unveiled a new official map of the national archipelago. It reflects recent negotiations with Southeast Asian neighbors, and the 2016 findings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands on the dispute in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines.

Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for marine affairs, said the northern waters off Indonesia's Natuna archipelago are part of the country's exclusive economic zone, and run northwards for 200 nautical miles.

Indonesia has never made any claim to parts of the South China Sea also disputed with China by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, but the waters it now calls the North Natuna Sea overlap with China's unilaterally declared Nine-Dash Line -- which takes in virtually all the South China Sea.

Pandjaitan told reporters on Monday that the North Natuna Sea falls entirely within existing Indonesian waters. "We are not renaming the South China Sea," he said after criticism from China.

"The so-called change of name makes no sense at all and is not conducive to the effort to the international standardization of the name of places," said Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. "We hope the relevant countries can work with China for the shared goal, and jointly uphold the current hard-won sound situation in the South China Sea."

Arif Havas Oegroseno, Pandjaitan's deputy, said there was "nothing unusual" about China's statement, and it required no response. "We will keep patrolling the region we claim," he said. "We won't back down."

The Indonesian navy has stepped up patrols around the Natuna islands in recent years. In 2016, it interdicted a number of Chinese vessels for "illegal fishing", sparking protests from Beijing.

Oegroseno said oil and gas exploration are well established in the area. The new name is based on the related North Natuna Block, and will be reported to the International Hydrographic Organization.

Amitav Acharya, a professor of international relations at the American University, told the Nikkei Asian Review that Indonesia is the first to act on the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which concluded that there is no legal or historical basis to China's claim to the resource-rich waters. Although the court was petitioned by the Philippines, Indonesia believes the findings are relevant to other disputants.

"Indonesia basically said the ruling is valid for them," said Acharya. "It is a very significant move." He believes Indonesia is one of the few countries able to stand up to China.

This is, however, not the first time a country named parts of the South China Sea. In 2011, the Philippines named parts of the sea within its ZEE the "West Philippine Sea". Vietnam, meanwhile, has long called the disputed sea the "East Sea."

Ken Koyanagi, Nikkei Asian Review editor-at-large in Bangkok, contributed to this story.

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