In an increasingly assertive move, a Chinese coastguard vessel patrolled near the contested waters of the Natuna Sea which lies in the Exclusive Economic Zone(EEZ) of Indonesia. The incursion was responded to with a warship, a maritime patrol plane and a drone deployed by Indonesia for reconnaissance in the resource-rich area.

Natuna island is located in the southernmost portion of the South China Sea. The United States also positioned USS Nimitz (CVN 68) in the sea on February 1 near southeast of Natuna Island where China’s coastguard vessel was spotted.

The military posturing of the ship in the world’s most hotly contested waters indicates that tensions continue to simmer between China and the US.

Its presence in the South China Sea has been welcomed by allies like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, but it continues to rile rival China.

An Indonesian Navy warship (KRI Bontang-907) and aircraft (NC212) shadowed the Chinese vessel sailing east of the continental shelf boundary. They collectively shadowed the vessel until it moved away 33 nautical miles from the Indonesian coast.

The vessel’s route shows that it is sailing particularly near the Tuna block and the Chim Sao oil and gas field, close to Riau Islands. China and Indonesia are again at loggerheads. Recently, the Indonesian government approved the first development plan for the Tuna offshore gas field, which is close to the Indonesia-Vietnam maritime boundary. As per the arrangement, the oil drilled from the Tuna region would be supplied to Vietnam via a subsea pipeline. The length of the gas line to the boundary of water along the coast is 11 km and about 60 km continued to the mainland.

The Tuna field is located in the South China Sea between Indonesia and Vietnam’s Tuna block, which lies within Indonesia’s EEZ and inside the so-called “nine-dash line” that China uses to claim historical rights over around 90 per cent of the disputed South China Sea.

Over 40% of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through the South China Sea – from the Gulf to the Indian Ocean and to places like China. The amount of trade sailing through the South China Sea is worth 3.37 trillion dollars per year, which is one-third of the world’s maritime trade. An estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is believed to be reserved beneath its seabed. Hence, being able to control this waterway or sea lines of communication has become extremely important for China.

The United States has been asserting navigational rights by having its navy sail and conducting frequent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP), while making it clear that Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea is “completely unlawful.”

China’s nine-dash line

China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 90% of the South China Sea, based on a U-shaped nine-dash line etched on the map by Chinese geographer Yang Huairen in the 1940s.

Both Australia and the United States have rejected nearly all of Beijing’s claims over the sea. In 2013, China added a tenth line to take in Taiwan in an attempt to flex its muscles over the region.

For long, China has argued that its claim over the South China Sea is historical in nature. Several Chinese analysts contend that the islands of the South China Sea, specifically the Paracels and Spratlys, were first discovered by China’s Han dynasty more than two millennia ago.

But, there is scant proof that China controlled the region after the mid-17th century. Other countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have raised disputes over the contentious South China Sea region for centuries.

China’s actual EEZ VS nine-dash line

According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Exclusive Economic Zone is an area that stretches up to 200 nautical miles from the coast of the state that is under the jurisdiction of the coastal state, which has an exclusiveness over its natural resources. All the countries of the world, including China, came together in the 1970s and negotiated maritime claims.

“UNCLOS is perceived as the main stabilizing factor of the oceans’ peaceful co-using and sustainable sees policies from the one side, but also as an imperfect tool with many inherent loopholes from the other,” states the report on Research Gate on the geopolitical situation in the

South China Sea, outlining the actual EEZ areas of China versus the unofficially claimed area.

In January 2013, the Philippines initiated arbitral proceedings against China in a dispute concerning their respective “maritime entitlements” and the legality of Chinese activities in the South China Sea. The Hague tribunal backed the Philippines in the case, and firmly rejected the PRC’s expansive maritime claims under international law, ruling that “rocky outcrops claimed by China – some of which are exposed only at low tide – cannot be used as the basis of territorial claims.”

Flare-ups with Indonesia

Earlier in 2021, China told Indonesia to stop drilling for oil and natural gas in maritime territory that both countries regard as their own during a months-long standoff in the South China Sea, reported Reuters. This happened after China Coastguard 5302 intruded into Indonesian waters in a maritime stand-off near the Natuna Islands. The unprecedented demand elevated tensions over natural resources between the two countries in an area of global strategic and economic importance. Indonesia gathered naval troops and forced China to retreat after Chinese vessels intruded into Indonesia’s naval boundaries.

China steps up military presence in South China Sea

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units are operating from militarized outposts in the South China Sea to defend China’s expansive maritime and territorial claims while also projecting power into maritime Southeast Asia, as reported in a study by RecordedFuture drawn from open source materials as well as visual materials, such as photographs, videos, and satellite imagery. In addition to the deployment of new military capabilities to the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands such as SAMs, bombers, and anti-ship cruise missiles, this militarization is also reflected in more subtle organisational changes.

Several PLA units are present in the South China Sea, including units from the PLA Navy’s shore command structure, the PLA Navy’s naval aviation branch, China’s national defence mobilization system, and the PLA Strategic Support Force. The report has identified and analysed nine specific PLA units that are deployed to Chinese outposts.

These units are Unit 91431 (Nansha Garrison), the Xisha Maritime Garrison Command, the 3rd Radar Brigade, the Yongxing Airfield Station, the Sansha Garrison Command, Unit 91531 (Navy engineering unit), the Xisha Satellite Observation Station, Unit 92155 (naval aviation air defence brigade), and Unit 92508.


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