For years the Indonesian government has remained aloof from territorial disputes and other geo-political goings-on in its neighborhood, but sustained efforts by China to slowly expand its claims in the South China Sea, effectively changing the reality on the ground and on the high seas via island reclamation, primarily, has finally rankled Jakarta.

As Chinese expansionism has challenged territorial rights of many of its neighbors including the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, the Jakarta government has decided it would pull a Beijing tactic: Renaming waters that fall within the southern sector of China’s nine-dash line, the territory it claims. Indonesia has renamed the waters the North Natuna Sea.

In addition, Indonesia has increased its military presence in the area, and last year, there were three skirmishes that featured warning shots, “including one in which Indonesian warships seized a Chinese fishing boat and its crew.”

Source: The New York Times

Analyst comment:  This is Jakarta’s way of telling Beijing it does not recognize China’s outsized territorial claims and is choosing to stand up directly to China rather than take its claims to international court, as the Philippines did, only to win a pyrrhic victory after China ignored the ruling. However, because of China’s economic ties and interests in Indonesia, obviously, this move carries financial risks for Jakarta.

Beijing has dismissed Indonesia’s moves and renaming of waters as “meaningless,” but obviously it isn’t. While China isn’t likely to back down from its claims, certainly the Indonesian government took that into consideration before making its own moves. The fact that Jakarta acted suggests that the Indonesian government considered the move worth the risks and, thus, isn’t likely to back down, either.

Is this the beginning of a neighborhood trend? Chinese financial interests extend throughout Asia, giving Beijing lots of leverage. But those financial interests are a two-way street. Indonesian actions may spark similar challenges from other neighbors whose territorial waters are also being impinged upon by Chinese expansionism.