South China Sea: Beijing demanded Indonesia stop oil and natural gas drilling during stand-off

02-Dec-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

China told Indonesia to stop drilling for oil and natural gas in maritime territory that both countries regard as their own during a months-long stand-off in the South China Sea earlier this year, four people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The unprecedented demand, which has not previously been reported, elevated tensions over natural resources between the two countries in a volatile area of global strategic and economic importance.

One letter from Chinese diplomats to Indonesia’s foreign ministry clearly told Jakarta to halt drilling at a temporary offshore rig because it was taking place in Chinese territory, according to Muhammad Farhan, an Indonesian lawmaker on parliament’s national security committee, which was briefed on the letter.

“Our reply was very firm, that we are not going to stop the drilling because it is our sovereign right,” Farhan said.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s foreign ministry said: “Any diplomatic communication between states is private in nature and its content cannot be shared.” He declined further comment.

China’s foreign ministry, defence ministry and embassy in Jakarta did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Three other people, who said they were briefed on the matter, confirmed the existence of the letter. Two of those people said China made repeated demands that Indonesia stop drilling.

Indonesia says the southern end of the South China Sea is its exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and named the area as the North Natuna Sea in 2017.

China objected to the name change and insists the waterway is within its expansive territorial claim in the South China Sea that it marks with a U-shaped “nine-dash line,” a boundary found to have no legal basis by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016.

“It [the letter] was a bit threatening because it was the first effort of China’s diplomats to push their nine-dash line agenda against our rights under the Law of the Sea,” Farhan said.

China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and second-largest source of investment, making it a key part of the Southeast Asian nation’s ambition to become a top-tier economy. Indonesian leaders kept quiet about the matter to avoid conflict or a diplomatic spat with China, Farhan and two of the other people who spoke to Reuters said.

Farhan said that China, in a separate letter, also protested against the predominantly land-based Garuda Shield military exercises in August, which took place during the stand-off.

The exercises, involving 4,500 troops from the US and Indonesia, have been a regular event since 2009. This was China’s first protest against them, according to Farhan.

“In their formal letter, the Chinese government was expressing their concern about the security stability in the area,” he said.

Within days of the Noble Clyde Boudreaux semi-submersible rig arriving at the Tuna Block in the Natuna Sea to drill two appraisal wells on June 30, a Chinese coastguard vessel was at the scene, according to ship movement data. It was soon joined by an Indonesian coastguard vessel.

Over the next four months, Chinese and Indonesian ships shadowed each other around the oil and gas field, frequently coming within 1 nautical mile of each other, according to an analysis of ship identification data and satellite imagery by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a project run by the US-based centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Data and images reviewed by AMTI and the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI), a Jakarta-based independent think-tank, showed a Chinese research ship, Haiyang Dizhi 10, arrived in the area in late August, spending most of the next seven weeks moving slowly in a grid pattern of the adjacent D-Alpha Block, an oil and gas reserve also in contested waters, valued at $500 billion by Indonesian government studies.

“Based on the pattern of movement, nature, and ownership of the vessel, it looked like it was conducting a scientific survey of the D-Alpha reserve,” said Jeremia Humolong, a researcher at the IOJI.

On September 25, the American aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan came within 7 nautical miles of the Tuna Block drilling rig. “This is the first observed instance of a US aircraft carrier operating in such proximity to an ongoing stand-off” in the South China Sea, AMTI said in a report published in November.

Four Chinese warships were also deployed to the area, according to the IOJI and local fishermen.

A spokesman for the US Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 5/Task Force 70 declined to disclose the carrier’s distance from the rig.

Beijing’s increasingly aggressive stance in the South China Sea has sparked concern in Jakarta, the four sources said.

Indonesia has not made any formal claim to areas of the South China Sea under United Nations rules, believing the extent of its waters is already clearly set by international law.

Farhan said Indonesia’s government played down the tension of the stand-off publicly. Its leaders wanted to be “as silent as possible because, if it was leaked to any media, it would create a diplomatic incident,” he said.

The temporary rig operated until November 19, after which it went to Malaysian waters. Indonesian security minister Mahfud M.D. went to the Natuna Sea last week. He said his visit had nothing to do with China, but said in a public statement that Indonesia would “never surrender an inch” of territory.

The drilling was completed on time, according to a spokesman for Harbour Energy, the operator of the Tuna Block.


Category: Indonesia

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