Island in a disputed sea

The word "sleepy" could have been invented for Ranai, the largest town in Indonesia's remote and sparsely populated Natuna archipelago. It has few cars and only two sets of traffic lights. The cloud-wreathed mountain looming over it resembles a slumbering volcano. Nearby pristine beaches lie empty, waiting for tourists.

From Ranai, it takes an imaginative leap to see Natuna - a scattering of 157 mostly uninhabited islands off the north-west coast of Borneo - as a future flashpoint in the escalating dispute over ownership of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways. But that is precisely what many people of the archipelago fear. They know Natuna is quite a prize. Its fish-rich waters are routinely plundered by foreign trawlers.

Lying just inside its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone is the East Natuna gas field, one of the world's largest untapped reserves. Any quarrel over Natuna would upset a delicate strategic balance, undermining Indonesia's role as a self-appointed honest broker in the myriad territorial disputes between its South-east Asian neighbours and regional giant China.

In April, Indonesian armed forces chief Moeldoko accused China of including parts of Natuna within its so-called "Nine-Dash Line", the vague boundary used on Chinese maps to lay claim to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

However, Jakarta's foreign ministry insists there is no problem with China over the status of Natuna. This despite incidents where armed Chinese vessels compelled Indonesian patrol boats to release Chinese trawlers who were fishing there illegally.

Relations between China and Indonesia are historic. However, any military build-up would be hampered by budget constraints and the fear of antagonising China, said Mr Yohanes Sulaiman, a security analyst at the Indonesian National Defence University. Many locals say the Indonesian government cares little about the fate of Natuna. But this apparent indifference is bred partly by a desire to keep the status quo, said Mr Sulaiman.

"The government knows there are no good options," he said. "They can't fight China, but if they don't push their claims, Indonesia will become a laughing stock."