Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea, President Joko Widodo has followed through to strengthen Indonesia’s military presence @ the southern border of the South China Sea.

Indonesian officials familiar with the plan say the 1,720 kilometer Natuna Besar island will soon be equipped with a surface-to-air missile system, together with elements of a marine battalion and upgraded air- and naval base facilities.

In 2017, the government produced an updated national map in which the country’s 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone (EEZ) north of the Natuna islands was renamed the North Natuna Sea – a move that subsequently drew protests from China.

In a formal letter to the Indonesian embassy in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry insisted that the two countries have overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea and that renaming the area would not alter that fact.

Indonesian Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti banned all foreign fishing boats from Indonesian waters soon after joining Widodo’s Cabinet in 2014.

Widodo’s pledge to beef up Indonesia’s maritime defenses underlines his government’s determination to uphold national sovereignty while settling about a dozen outstanding maritime border issues with Malaysia, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Australia.

Analysts believe the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) will deploy Norway’s advanced Kongsberg Gruppen medium-range missile system (AMRAAM) to Natuna Besar, providing an air defense umbrella covering more than 100 km2.

The newly acquired weapon is based on US defense company Raytheon’s air-to-air AMRAAM, which Washington approved for sale to Indonesia in 2016, at the time the air force took delivery from the USA of an additional 24 refurbished F-16 fighter jets to boost its front-line air defenses.

There has also been talk of Natuna Besar serving as the base for some of the Indonesian Army’s eight new AH-64E Apache attack helicopters, which are armed with AGM 114R3 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.

According to military sources, the main argument for the USA selling the Apache to Indonesia in the first place was its perceived role in safeguarding the free flow of shipping through the pirate-infested and strategically important Malacca Straits.

That is not the only strategic choke point. Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in traffic through the Sunda Strait, separating Indonesia’s islands of Java and Sumatra, as the world’s shipping lines seek to avoid congestion in the Malacca waterway.

The Indonesian Navy has taken over most of the patrols in the North Natuna Sea since the rash of incidents with China in 2016, but sources familiar with the military build-up say it will take several years for Natuna Besar to evolve into a full-fledged base.

Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2019.

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