Nationalistic symbolism behind 'Natuna Sea'

Keeping the Natuna Islands archipelago and its surrounding waters intact is Indonesia's foremost prevailing concern in protecting its state sovereignty and preserving its territorial integrity. A recent proposal to rename the waters around Natuna Islands as "Laut Natuna Utara" (North Natuna Sea) has made headlines.

Soon after China's incursion into Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on March 19, the Natuna issue captured considerable attention inside Indonesia. The latest incursion, which occurred on June 17, so alarmed the Indonesian authorities that President Joko Widodo sailed to the Natunas on a navy warship. His apparent show of force signalled Indonesia's determination to safeguard the Natuna Islands and their attendant EEZ. His gesture can be construed as an explicit manifestation of Indonesian nationalism.

When illegal fishing became more of a regular occurrence in Indonesian waters, Mr Joko issued a presidential decree to establish a special task force known as Satgas 115 on Oct 19 last year. Led by Mr Achmad Santoso, this task force included the Ministry of Maritime and Fisheries, the navy, the police, the Attorney-General's Office and the Maritime Security Agency.

As the prime purpose of the task force was to resolve the illegal fishing problem, many fishing vessels were either seized or capsized. That 60 seized boats were sunk on Aug 17 to mark Indonesia's independence day illustrated a heightened sense of nationalism within Indonesian society.

On the same day, Mr Santoso broached the idea of renaming the part of the South China Sea surrounding the Natuna Islands as "Laut Natuna" (Natuna Sea) and forwarding this proposal to the United Nations (UN) for approval. His suggestion was supported by the local Natuna authorities, including the mayor, Mr Hamid Rizal. In their view, this name change could reaffirm Indonesia as having sole guardianship of the entire Natuna Islands archipelago and its waters.

However, in the atlas produced by Indonesia, the sea around the Natuna Islands is already called "Laut Natuna". Where the Natuna Sea does not feature is in the international atlas. Hence, one plausible explanation is that Jakarta intended to get approval from the UN for "Natuna Sea" to be legitimised and subsequently reflected in the international atlas.

President Joko (centre) on the deck of the Indonesian Navy ship KRI Imam Bonjol with some members of his Cabinet in the waters of Natuna Islands on June 23. His apparent show of force signalled Indonesia's determination to safeguard the Natuna Island
President Joko (centre) on the deck of the Indonesian Navy ship KRI Imam Bonjol with some members of his Cabinet in the waters of Natuna Islands on June 23. His apparent show of force signalled Indonesia's determination to safeguard the Natuna Islands and their attendant EEZ. PHOTO: REUTERS

When queried by reporters about the name change to Natuna Sea during his trip to Batam on Aug 27, Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, replied that Mr Santoso's proposal had been misinterpreted, without mentioning him by name. Mr Luhut clarified that the Indonesian government was not seeking to rename the South China Sea as the Natuna Sea, but rather only the waterways which fall within Indonesia's EEZ.

The name Mr Luhut had in mind was "North Natuna Sea", but he then neglected to spell out the relationship between the North Natuna Sea and the existing Natuna Sea, as featured on the Indonesian-produced world atlas. Adding to the confusion is that the same atlas denotes both Pulau Natuna Besar (Large Natuna Island) and Pulau Natuna Utara (North Natuna Island). Thus, is the North Natuna Sea meant only for the waters around North Natuna Island? Perhaps, as Mr Luhut noted, the proposal was still in the process of formulation. Nothing is thus finalised as the government was still studying the dynamics of any name change for the waterways.

The renaming of islands and seas is nothing new when one looks back at the history of Indonesia. President Sukarno, in his attempt to promote Indonesian nationalism, renamed Indonesian islands such as Borneo as Kalimantan, and New Guinea as Irian. These new names were used in the Indonesian- produced atlas, but the international map continued to use the old names for the two islands as Indonesia has jurisdiction only over part of these islands.

In May 1963, a few days after Indonesia secured the sovereignty of West New Guinea (West Irian), Mr Sukarno called for the Indian Ocean near Indonesia to be renamed Indonesian Ocean (Samudera Indonesia). This name change then entered into the Indonesian-produced atlas and even school textbooks, but, here again, the world atlas continued to use the original name.

The politics of renaming in Indonesia's past seemed to have made little impact internationally. The name change did not even receive international recognition. Yet, Mr Sukarno was able to use this act to evoke Indonesian nationalist feelings so as to garner public support for his policies.

In the same way, if the proposal for renaming the waters around the Natuna Islands goes ahead as planned, it is likely to encounter the same fate of being accorded no international legitimacy. It is unlikely that the UN will agree to the name change, more so when it remains unclear at this point which agency within the UN can actually make that determination.

The politicised naming of the Natuna Sea was also a manifestation of Indonesian nationalism. Its purpose was less about bolstering the international standing of Indonesia, and more for domestic consumption in two ways.

One, the Natunas are rich in oil and gas, and it is therefore in Indonesia's national interest to protect this natural resource.

Two, Indonesians have to be reassured that their country will not incur losses in the Natunas as it did with Sipadan and Ligitan, which the International Court of Justice ruled belong to Malaysia. The loss of Sipadan and Ligitan remains steeped in the historical memory of many Indonesians.

So overall, if anything, the name- change proposal is principally symbolic and in direct response to the deep-rooted nationalist sentiments currently prevalent in Indonesian society.

It is hard to imagine that a mere name change can curb the rise in illegal fishing in Indonesia's EEZ, with Chinese fishermen being a case in point. While a potential name change may provoke a response from China, and thus affect the bilateral relationship with Indonesia, it is unlikely to result in an outright naval confrontation. This is because political elites in both Beijing and Jakarta appreciate the value of deepening economic engagement between their countries.

•Leo Suryadinata is visiting senior fellow and Mustafa Izzuddin is fellow at the Iseas - Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 09, 2016, with the headline 'Nationalistic symbolism behind 'Natuna Sea''. Print Edition | Subscribe