Island in a Disputed Sea

Island in a Disputed Sea


A fishing boat motors back to shore on the east coast of Indonesia’s Natuna Besar, one of the 157 mostly uninhabited islands off the northwest coast of Borneo.

Many people fear that the Natuna archipelago will become a flashpoint in the escalating dispute over ownership of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

. RANAI, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

A boy fishes on the rocky east coast of Natuna Besar, one of the islands whose fish-rich waters make the archipelago quite a prize.

Similarly, Natuna is home to the East Natuna gas field, one of the world's largest untapped reserves.

. RANAI, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Any quarrel over Natuna would 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.

. NONE, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

The boat of local fisherman Rusli Suhardi heads towards fishing grounds.

In April, the 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.

Jakarta's foreign ministry, however, insists there is no problem with China over the status of Natuna.

. NONE, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Rusli Suhardi, 40, a leader of the local fisherman’s cooperative, prepares his lines as he heads towards the fishing grounds.

Rusli said Natuna fish stocks plummeted with the arrival of big-net trawlers from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

"Before 2010, we could catch 100 kg (220 lbs) of fish a day. Now it takes three days to catch that amount," he said.

. PENAGI, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

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.

There have been incidents where armed Chinese vessels compelled Indonesian patrol boats to release illegal Chinese trawlers.

Ian Storey, a security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, said Indonesia has downplayed such incidents, not wanting them to overshadow relations with China.

Such relations between China and Indonesia are historic. However, 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.

. RANAI, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

A new civilian passenger terminal is being constructed at the Ranai airbase, developed after Indonesia’s independence in 1949, in the hope of attracting more investors and tourists.

. PENAGI, Indonesia. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Predating Ranai's airbase is the ethnic Chinese community of Penagi, a ramshackle village built on stilts along a nearby pier.

Every morning, an Indonesian flag is raised over Penagi's pier. Many locals say the Indonesian government cares little about the fate of Natuna.

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."