Indonesia mulls drones in response to China's maritime flexing

Mischief Reef, pictured in this handout satellite image, shows China's rising military pressence in the South China Sea.
Mischief Reef, pictured in this handout satellite image, shows China's rising military pressence in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS/CSIS ASIA

HONG KONG/JAKARTA (Bloomberg) - Indonesia is considering using drones and submarines to strengthen its grip over the gas-rich waters around the Natuna Islands in response to China's growing military presence in the South China Sea.

These comments by Indonesia's security chief Luhut Panjaitan in an opinion piece Wednesday (Oct 7) in the Kompas newspaper represent some of the most direct yet by the nation over China's claims in the water. They highlight unease in the government even as it maintains it is not a party to regional disputes over the waters.

"Only a few people were predicting the imaginary nine-dash line raised by China since 2009 would have a strong military and political affect," wrote Panjaitan, the coordinating minster for security, politics and law.

"This is on the back of the speedy economic development which automatically has given China a large military budget. Such a massive military spending has enabled the Chinese armed forces to have a presence in the South China Sea that is worrying the United States."

Panjaitan, a confidant to President Joko Widodo and a former general, said Indonesia needed to realign its defense posture with the "projected threats" from those dynamics as well as those posed by a small band of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria followers in the east of the country.

He said the country's military hardware procurement programme had to "answer the question of how we can project our power in the Natuna archipelago" perhaps by strengthening its airbase there, putting a drone squadron on one of the islands or purchasing a Kilo-class submarine. 

China claims more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways, based on a so-called nine dash line for which it won't give precise coordinates. In passports issued in 2012, China's line encroaches on the exclusive economic zone that Indonesia derives from the Natuna Islands. Indonesia hasn't recognised the claim.

Panjaitan's comments come amid reports the US is considering sailing warships inside the 12 nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around some of the islands it has reclaimed in the Spratly Islands to the north of the Natuna Islands.

The US, which wants to protect freedom of navigation in the waters, has vowed to fly or sail wherever international law allows. Until now, it has avoided transiting within the zone of China's claimed islands, even though some were submerged at high tide before it began its reclamation activities, meaning they don't generate a 12-mile zone under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The Obama administration is heavily leaning toward using a show of military might after failing to get China to end the island building and construction of military outposts when President Xi Jinping visited Washington last month, Foreign Policy magazine reported Oct 2.

Failing to sail or fly within the zones may send a mistaken signal that Washington tacitly accepts Beijing's far-reaching territorial claims, Foreign Policy reported.