| RANAI, Indonesia
RANAI, Indonesia Aug 26 The word "sleepy" could
have been invented for Ranai, the largest town in Indonesia's
remote and sparsely populated Natuna archipelago.
It has few cars and only two sets of traffic lights. The
cloud-wreathed mountain looming over it resembles a slumbering
volcano. Nearby beaches lie pristine and empty, waiting for
From Ranai, it takes an imaginative leap to see Natuna - a
scattering of 157 mostly uninhabited islands off the northwest
coast of Borneo - as a future flashpoint in the escalating
dispute over ownership of the South China Sea, one of the
world's busiest waterways.
But that's precisely what many people here fear.
They know Natuna is quite a prize. Its fish-rich waters are
routinely plundered by foreign trawlers. Lying just inside its
200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone is the East Natuna gas
field, one of the world's largest untapped reserves.
And any quarrel over Natuna would also upset a delicate
strategic balance, undermining Indonesia's role as a
self-appointed honest broker in the myriad territorial disputes
between its Southeast Asian neighbours and regional giant China.
Jakarta's foreign ministry insists there is no problem with
China over the status of Natuna, but the Indonesian military has
in recent months struck a more assertive tone.
In April, Indonesian armed forces chief Moeldoko accused
China of including parts of Natuna within its so-called
"Nine-Dash Line," the vague boundary used on Chinese maps to lay
claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea.
EARLY WARNING SYSTEM
With maritime tensions rising between China and the
Philippines and Vietnam, Moeldoko later vowed to send more
troops to Natuna "to anticipate any instability in the South
China Sea and serve as an early warning system for Indonesia".
The airforce plans to upgrade Ranai's airbase to accommodate
fighter jets and attack helicopters.
Officially, China and Indonesia don't contest the sovereignty
of the islands: both agree they are part of Indonesia's Riau
Province. Nor is Indonesia among the five countries - Malaysia,
the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei - challenging
Beijing's expansive claims in the South China Sea.
This has allowed Jakarta to play a neutral role and seek to
mediate in an increasingly bitter and volatile dispute.
But Natuna's bit-part in this regional drama reflects
"growing concern within Indonesia about China's actions within
the Nine-Dash Line," said Ian Storey, a security expert at the
Institute of Southeast Asia Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.
Rising maritime tensions with China have induced many
Southeast Asian countries to seek closer strategic ties with the
Since 2010 Indonesia has unsuccessfully sought clarification
through the United Nations of the legal basis for the Nine-Dash
Line. Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, told
Reuters in April that Indonesia had "inferred" from China that
the line did not cross Indonesian territory.
Locals remain unconvinced. "We're worried they'll take over
this territory," Ilyas Sabli, Natuna's regent, or district
chief, told Reuters, referring to the Chinese. "That's why it
has become our first priority to protect this homeland."
DEFENDING OIL AND GAS
About 80,000 people live on 27 of Natuna's islands, mostly in
Ranai and other places on the main island of Natuna Besar.
Ranai airbase was developed after Indonesia's independence
in 1949, and the town grew up around it. Today, a new civilian
passenger terminal is being constructed in the hope of
attracting more investors and tourists.
There was no evidence of an Indonesian military
build-up. Two small naval ships lay idle at the end of a nearby
Plans to upgrade the airbase were "not a new thing", but
part of a longer-term strategy to improve the airforce's
far-flung facilities, base commander Lieutenant Colonel Andri
Gandhy told Reuters.
The plans include lengthening Ranai's runway to handle
larger aircraft. Work will start in 2015 or 2016, depending on
the funding, said Gandhy.
Any military build-up would be hampered by budget restraints
and fear of antagonising China, said Yohanes Sulaiman, a
security analyst at the Indonesian National Defense University.
"The Indonesian military really wants to defend the islands,
but with what? How can they fight China?" he said.
Neighbouring Malaysia has a more convincing blueprint to beef
up its military presence in the South China Sea.
In October, Malaysia announced plans to build a navy base in
Bintulu on Sarawak, the closest major town to the James Shoal, a
submerged reef about 80 km (50 miles) off the coast of
Malaysia's Sarawak claimed by Malaysia, China and Taiwan.
Chinese warships conducted exercises nearby in 2013 and 2014.
The base will host a new Marine Corps, modelled on, and
possibly trained by, its U.S. counterpart. Without mentioning
China, Malaysia's defence minister said the aim was to protect
Malaysia's oil and gas reserves.
China has never protested against Indonesia's search for oil
and gas in Natuna waters, said Storey. The state-owned Pertamina
is co-developing the East Natuna gas field with Exxon Mobil Corp
, Total SA and PTT Exploration and Production
As in Vietnam and the Philippines, it is Indonesia's fishing
fleet that feels China's growing maritime presence most acutely.
Natuna fish stocks plummeted with the arrival of big-net
trawlers from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan, said Rusli
Suhardi, 40, a leader of the local fishermen's cooperative.
"Before 2010, we could catch 100 kg (220 lbs) of fish a day.
Now it takes three days to catch that amount," he said.
A nearby bay is littered with the disintegrating wrecks of a
dozen or more boats, mostly Vietnamese trawlers confiscated by
the Indonesian authorities for fishing illegally. That no
Chinese trawlers rot in this marine graveyard is testament to
China's growing maritime muscle.
In March 2013, armed Chinese vessels confronted a patrol
boat from Indonesia's maritime and fisheries ministry and
demanded the release of Chinese fishermen who had just been
apprehended in Natuna waters. Fearing for his safety, the
captain of the Indonesian boat complied.
Similarly, in 2010, a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel
compelled an Indonesian patrol boat to release another illegal
Storey, of ISEAS, said Indonesia has downplayed such
incidents, not wanting them to overshadow relations with China.
Those relations are historic. Predating Ranai's airbase is
the ethnic Chinese community of Penagi, a ramshackle village
built on stilts along a nearby pier. One of its oldest residents
is Lim Po Eng, 78, a retired labourer, who said Penagi was
founded by his grandfather and others fleeing chaos and poverty
"We settled here and began to develop the place," he said.
The island was already inhabited by indigenous people, added
Lim, "but they lived in the bush."
Every morning, an Indonesian flag is raised over Penagi's
pier. Many locals say the Indonesian government cares little
about the fate of Natuna, which lies closer to Malaysia's
capital Kuala Lumpur than it does to Jakarta.
But this apparent indifference is bred partly by a desire to
keep the status quo, said security analyst Sulaiman.
"The government knows there are no good options," he said.
"They can't fight China, but if they don't push their claims
Indonesia will become a laughing stock."
For a video report from Natuna, click on:
(Editing by Alex Richardson)