After years of neutrality, Indonesia appears to be getting drawn into a conflict over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea following repeated clashes with Chinese fishermen near the Natuna islands off Borneo island.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s military announced it would maintain a hardline stance to control the nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the waters around the Natuna islands.
“We have deployed five ships and one aircraft patrol to monitor the Natuna area to prevent such illegal trespassing from happening again,” Indonesian military chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo said in a press release issued in Jakarta.
“We will seize anyone who illegally enters our territory. If we do not do capture those people, then it means we are sleeping,” he added.
Last week, Indonesian navy ships fired warning shots as they chased 12 foreign fishing boats from waters near the Indonesian island chain, northwest of southern Borneo, which are claimed by both Indonesia and China.
In the third such incident since March, a Chinese-flagged boat was captured and its seven-member crew detained, leading China to lodge a protest, according to news reports.
A Chinese foreign ministry statement issued shortly thereafter said that “China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests” in the area, implying the existence of a dispute, Agence France-Presse reported.
Gatot said Wednesday that the military would follow Indonesian law in taking action against any Chinese-flagged or ships from other nations captured in Indonesia’s EEZ.
“Of course an investigation will be conducted. Whether the captured ships will be sunk, we will decide after a trial is held,” he said.
A naval presence was necessary to maintain national sovereignty, Rear Adm. Achmad Taufiqoerrochman, the commander of the navy’s Western Fleet, said separately.
Incidents involving Chinese ships
Meanwhile, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said that her ministry planned to strengthen security in Indonesia’s territorial waters.
Since the beginning of the year, 57 foreign fishing boats have been caught by the navy and other Indonesian forces trespassing in Natuna waters, according to the ministry.
In March, a Chinese Coast Guard ship reportedly attempted to intervene when an Indonesian task force tried to capture a vessel poaching in those waters. After the incident the government summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta to lodge a complaint.
A similar incident occurred on May 27, when the Navy captured a Chinese fishing boat and its eight crew members who allegedly did not have permission to fish in those waters.
On Friday, after radio communications, signal flags, and an announcement over loudspeakers and warning shots had failed, the task force captured one of 12 foreign vessels violating Indonesia’s EEZ, reports said.
The Chinese fishing boat carried a crew of seven. A Chinese Coast Guard ship that was escorting the fishing boats repeatedly asked over the radio for the boat to be released, according to the ministry.
“We often catch Vietnamese boats, but they obey us. There is no resistance. We suspect that this was supported by the Chinese government,” Rear Adm. Achmad said.
The admiral denied a report from China that the task force had fired at the fishing boat, injuring a crew member.
“We just fired warning shots because the ship would not stop,” he said.
Taufiqoerrochman said he was waiting for the results of an arbitration hearing before a United Nations tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, over a Philippine challenge of China’s occupation of islands in the South China Sea.
The court is expected to rule on the case on July 7.
China claims much of the South China Sea in territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Indonesia is not a party to these territorial disputes.
However, Indonesian officials are becoming more and more angry over Chinese fishing boats venturing into waters of its EEZ.
According to Minister Susi, 30 foreign trawlers will be sunk next month to prove Indonesia’s commitment to upholding the law. Indonesia has destroyed 176 foreign fishing boats captured between October 2014 and April 2016, according to the maritime ministry. Many of the boats were seized in Natuna waters.
Hikmahanto Juwana, a law expert at the University of Indonesia, agreed with the government’s move to beef up security around the exclusive economic zone.
“Indonesia should work with China related to the definition of the 9-dash line in the South China Sea,” he told BenarNews, referring to an imaginary line that China uses to claim its territorial waters in the sea.
Another analyst, Melda Kamil said the government should take a firmer stand in declaring its EEZ claim to China. She also called for a united front involving the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“We cannot handle China by ourselves, we should stand together,” Melda told BenarNews.