The new year finds Indonesia and China ensnared in an uneasy stand-off in the South China Sea. Indonesia says two Chinese coast guard ships, along with some 60 Chinese fishing boats, have been lingering off the coast of its Natuna Islands since Dec 19 in breach of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Beijing maintains that its fishermen have the right to be there because the waters constitute a part of China's traditional fishing grounds. The area falls within the "nine-dash" line in maps that China has published to press its claim of sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea. Jakarta is equally firm that the nine-dash line has no legitimacy, and hence there is no question of overlapping jurisdiction with China.
The result is an impasse from which there is no easy way out. In protest, Jakarta summoned China's ambassador, dispatched six warships and four fighter jets to patrol its EEZ and encouraged around 120 fishermen to sail to the area. The newly re-elected President Joko Widodo, in his first Cabinet meeting of the year, said there would be no compromise on territorial sovereignty. Shortly after he took office in his first term in 2014, Indonesia began a crackdown on poachers, sinking and burning foreign fishing vessels that strayed into its waters. The Natunas dispute bubbled up in March 2016 when Chinese coast guard vessels fired shots to rescue a fishing vessel detained by an Indonesian naval ship. Mr Joko opted to send a message to China by holding a Cabinet meeting on a warship patrolling the waters. In the months that followed, the waters north of the Natunas were renamed the North Natuna Sea, much to Beijing's annoyance. A year later, Indonesia set up a new military base on the islands. Apart from their value as fishing grounds, the Natuna waters hold significant reserves of oil and gas and serve as crucial tracts for commercial shipping.