Indonesia said on Monday that it had protested to Beijing about the intrusion of a Chinese coast guard ship in its exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands, as ship tracking data seen by BenarNews revealed a Chinese fishing fleet entered the area around the same time.
While the coast guard vessel left the area on Monday, ship-tracking data showed the fishing fleet less than 130 nautical miles from Natuna Besar, and less than 90 nautical miles from Laut Island, in Indonesia’s Natuna regency, at around 11 pm local time.
An Indonesian patrol ship spotted China Coast Guard ship 5204 on Saturday and asked it to leave, Indonesia’s maritime agency Bakamla said. It did not mention sighting a Chinese fishing fleet.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said that Jakarta in its protest to the Chinese Embassy emphasized that it rejects China’s so-called Nine-Dash Line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea. The Natuna Islands lie in the southern reaches of the sea, an area that Indonesia calls the Natuna Sea.
"We made it clear to the Chinese deputy ambassador that Indonesia's exclusive economic zone does not overlap with Chinese waters," Faizasyah said.
China’s Nine-Dash Line, though, overlaps with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in waters off the Natunas, U.S.-based experts on the South China Sea told BenarNews in January after a similar incursion by Chinese coast guard and fishing boats.
Faizasyah said that China’s Nine-Dash line violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS defines an EEZ as an area generally extending 200 nautical miles from shore, within which coastal countries retain special rights to exploration and use of marine resources, even though it is international territory.
Bakamla spokesman Wisnu Pramandita said that when an Indonesian patrol ship spotted CCG 5204 on Saturday and asked it to leave, the Chinese ship refused.
“They said they were patrolling because the area is within China’s jurisdiction,” he told BenarNews. “They can pass by, but patrolling the area means they treat it as their territory, so we told them to go.”
CCG 5204 finally left the area at noon on Monday, Wisnu said.
Four other Chinese vessels
Meanwhile, ship-tracking data shows that CCG 5204 has spent the last month patrolling Vanguard Bank, a submerged feature off Vietnam’s southernmost coast that is disputed between Vietnam and China.
Vanguard Bank, which sits a little over 200 nautical miles from Natuna Besar, has been the site of previous stand-offs between the two countries.
However, on Sept. 11, the 5204 began broadcasting a contradictory Automatic Identification Signal, or AIS, showing it in multiple places at once. This is typically a sign of ‘spoofing,’ which is a technique Chinese coast guard ships have used in the past to hide their activities.
One commercial ship-tracking tool showed the 5204 just within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone on Saturday, while ship-tracking data seen by BenarNews showed it patrolling Vanguard Bank at the same time.
Meanwhile, the four fishing vessels that entered Indonesian waters over the weekend are owned and operated by the Fuzhou-based Dong Xin Long Ocean Fishing company, ship-tracking data shows.
These vessels on Sunday sailed through an area of the North Natuna Sea where Vietnam and Indonesia both have overlapping EEZ claims. The Chinese vessels were shadowed by two ships from Vietnam’s Fisheries Resources Surveillance agency until they crossed further into Indonesian waters.
Ibrahim Almuttaqi, head of the ASEAN Study Center at the Habibie Center think tank, said China isn’t transparent in its actions in the South China Sea.
“We don’t really know what justifications the Chinese coast guard vessel had for entering Indonesia’s EEZ,” he told BenarNews. In contrast, Indonesia’s position is very clear and backed by international law,” he said, referring to the 1982 UNCLOS.
“I believe Indonesia remains committed to finding a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea dispute that is acceptable to all parties, including China, and in accordance with international law. It would be a mistake to mistreat Indonesia’s good intentions.”
Indonesian and Chinese vessels have had stand-offs before in the South China Sea.
In January, Indonesia sent four F-16 fighter jets to the Natuna Islands after incursions by Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels in the area.
Indonesia asserts that it is not among countries in the region engaged in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with the sweeping claims of China in the South China Sea.
On Saturday, the ASEAN Regional Forum – one of the world’s largest multilateral forums on peace and security – noted in its annual chairman’s statement that some countries are concerned about land reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
In recent years, Beijing has undertaken major reclamation of disputed land features in the Paracel and Spratly island chains.
Such activities “have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region,” the forum’s statement said.
“The ministers reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.”
China claims most of the South China Sea, saying it has “historic rights” to the waterway, where it has been building military installations and artificial islands as Beijing expands the footprint of its armed forces in the contested maritime region.
ASEAN and China have for close to two decades been trying to set out guidelines – a Code of Conduct – for how claimants in the South China Sea must behave. But they haven’t been able to reach an agreement since 2002, when ASEAN member-states inked their willingness to peacefully settle disputes in the waterway.
The forum’s 2020 statement expressed optimism that a Code of Conduct would be agreed upon soon and said that it would be “consistent with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
The 27-member forum includes 10 ASEAN states, India, Japan, China, the U.S., Russia and the European Union.