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Indonesia stakes South China Sea claim, risking Beijing's ire

Jakarta uses last year's international tribunal ruling to rename disputed waters

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 A ruling by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last July denying China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea has been dismissed as meaningless by Beijing and effectively abandoned by the original petitioner, the Philippines.

But at least one country has been inspired to make use of the legal decision. On July 14, Indonesia renamed waters in its exclusive economic zone at the southern end of the disputed waters the North Natuna Sea.

Indonesian officials said the ruling, which concluded that there is no legal or historical basis for China's claim to the South China Sea, helped them draft a new official map of the Indonesian archipelago, which they unveiled the same day. The update to an older 2005 map includes settlements to border negotiations with several Southeast Asian neighbors in recent years, as well as the renaming of the waters north of Indonesia's Natuna archipelago.

"The ruling [asserts] an international law jurisprudence [stipulating] that small islands or rocks in the middle of the sea that cannot sustain human habitation have no right to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone or continental shelves," said Arif Havas Oegroseno, a deputy to Indonesia's coordinating minister for maritime affairs, in a press release. He was referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, upon which the tribunal based its decision. The ruling's clause on uninhabitable rocks confirms Indonesia's EEZ, and was referenced in border talks with direct neighbors such as Singapore and the Philippines, Oegroseno said.

CHINA'S COMPLAINT Beijing immediately reacted to Jakarta's announcement. China bases its claims in the South China Sea on the so-called Nine Dash Line -- not recognized by Indonesia -- part of which overlaps with Indonesia's EEZ off Natuna.

Although Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on the day of Indonesia's announcement he was "not aware of the details," he added that "the so-called change of name makes no sense at all and is not conducive to the effort toward the international standardization of place names. We hope the relevant country can work with China on shared goals and jointly uphold the current hard-won sound situation in the South China Sea."

Jakarta shrugged off that criticism. Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said Indonesia was only renaming its EEZ off Natuna. "We are not renaming the South China Sea," he said. Oegroseno added 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 impounded a number of Chinese vessels for what it called illegal fishing, sparking protests from Beijing.

Indonesia's renaming has precedent. In 2011, the Philippines named parts of the sea within its EEZ the "West Philippine Sea." Vietnam, meanwhile, has long called the disputed area the "East Sea." The two countries, along with Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, have often clashed with China over the resource-rich area, through which much seaborne trade also passes.

Indonesia has repeatedly stated it is not a claimant to the disputed waters. But the change of nomenclature makes it the first to act on the tribunal's decision, noted Amitav Acharya, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington.

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

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

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