Indonesia, Malaysia Face Off at Sea

An unlikely naval confrontation has broken out between Indonesia and Malaysia, with warships from the two nations challenging each other repeatedly in the disputed oil-rich waters of the Celebes Sea east of the island of Borneo this week.

Indonesian navy officials told local media their ships were minutes away from firing on Malaysian warships, which they charged were 12 nautical miles inside Indonesia’s territory. However, they said, they called off the attack when the Malaysian ships pulled back.

Indonesian officials said the Malaysian Navy and Marine Police have intruded into Indonesian waters at least nine times since the beginning of the year. Najib Tun Razak, on his first state visit overseas after being named Malaysia’s prime minister in April, met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Jakarta on April 23 in an attempt to resolve the matter.

An attaché at the Malaysia embassy in Jakarta refused comment and asked that his name not be used, saying only that "we are still awaiting a response from Kuala Lumpur. " The only information the embassy had on the situation, he said, came from Indonesian television and newspapers.

In Kuala Lumpur, the continuing confrontation has not been covered in the media. "They usually black out things like this," said a Kuala Lumpur government source.

The ill-defined sea border straddles the eastern Kalimantan province of Borneo and western Sulawesi on the Indonesian side and Sabah in northern Borneo. The navies have been challenging each other ever since significant oil reserves were found there. In March of 2005, Indonesia accused a Malaysian naval vessel, the KD Renchong, of ramming the 36-meter KRI Tedung Nava patrol boat, causing minor damage to both vessels. The Malaysian navy has repeatedly chased Indonesian fishermen out of the area, with Indonesia accusing Malaysia of scores of violations of its territory.

Both countries have awarded oil concessions to Shell, Unocal, and ENI respectively in the disputed region. Both have delivered protest notes to each other. Demonstrations have ensued in Indonesia, with some protesters calling to "crush Malaysia." With a presidential election approaching in July, a little rocket-rattling never hurts.

In the current incident, Lt. Col. Toni Syaiful, spokesman for the Navy’s Surabaya-based Eastern Fleet Command, was quoted by the Jakarta Globe as saying the Malaysian Fast Attack Craft Gun craft penetrated into Indonesian territory at dawn Monday, calling it the "worst incident" of its kind because Malaysian naval vessels previously had only intruded "several miles."

The Malaysians, Syaiful said, also ignored demands from the captain of an Indonesian corvette to retreat. "[Despite] being warned twice, they just moved away several meters," he told the newspaper "Eventually, the commander of KRI Untung Suropati, Capt. Salim, made the decision to assume combat readiness. Only then did the Malaysians decide to flee."

Six Indonesian warships are patrolling the area, with another seven of the Indonesian navy’s 30 craft on alert, according to Indonesian Navy Chief Adm. Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno. The Eastern Fleet Command estimated that the Malaysian Navy had as many as four warships in the area.

Indonesian Army Chief Gen. Djoko Santoso was quoted as saying Malaysian warships have often violated Indonesian territory in the disputed waters because both sides have solid legal ground for their claims over the Ambalat area.

"The disputed borders between the two countries in Ambalat should be resolved immediately," Djoko said, adding that he hoped border negotiations could be settled soon so that the Indonesian military did not have to build up its forces in the area.