Indonesia lodged a strong protest with Beijing on Monday and accused it of trespassing, after confirming that dozens of Chinese fishing boats and two coast guard ships had entered its territorial waters at the edge of the South China Sea.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed the diplomatic protest while the nation’s Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) told BenarNews it would intensify sea patrols after at least 65 Chinese ships had sailed since Dec. 19 into Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off its Natuna islands, which lie at the southern end of the contested sea. Most of the Chinese vessels were fishing boats but a pair were from China’s coast guard, Bakamla said.
A recent meeting of several government ministries confirmed there had been “violations of Indonesia’s EEZ, including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and violations of sovereignty by China’s coast guard [ships] in the Natuna waters,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“The Foreign Ministry has summoned China’s ambassador in Jakarta and conveyed our strong protest over the incidents. A diplomatic note of protest has also been issued,” the ministry said.
It was not immediately clear who met Xiao Qian, the Chinese envoy to Indonesia, as Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in Central Java province on Monday morning.
The ministry’s statement reiterated Indonesia’s position that it had no overlapping jurisdictions with China and did not recognize the so-called Nine-Dash Line – vaguely located demarcations on maps that Beijing has published as part of its official claim of sovereignty to nearly all of the South China Sea.
“Indonesia will never recognize China’s Nine-Dash Line because the drawing of the line is in violation of UNCLOS,” it said, referring to the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea. The law grants countries 200 nautical miles (230 miles) from their coast, where they can claim exclusive fishing, mining and drilling rights.
The ambassador noted Indonesia’s concerns and would report back to Beijing, the statement said, adding that the two countries agreed to maintain good relations.
A Chinese embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request from BenarNews for comment.
Indonesia to increase patrols
Tensions between China and its neighbors have risen in recent years as Beijing has sought to assert its control of the South China Sea in the face of competing territorial claims from countries in the region.
China claims most of the sea as its own, while Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims.
Indonesia is not a party to the maritime dispute, but asserted its claim in 2017 by renaming the waters around islands as the North Natuna Sea and establishing an integrated military unit in the chain.
Bakamla said it would intensify patrols in response to the alleged encroachment by Chinese fishing vessels.
“We will increase the number of security personnel by cooperating with various agencies such as the Ministry of Defense, the Navy and the Ministry of Fisheries,” Bakamla chairman Achmad Taufiqoerrohman told BenarNews.
He did not provide details on numbers of personnel involved.
Achmad said Bakamla patrols began spotting Chinese-flagged ships on Dec. 19.
“We chased them out, but after Dec. 24, they returned to our EEZ and insisted that it was their fishing ground,” he said.
“Our sovereignty is non-negotiable, but actions must be measured, depending on the situation on the ground … because we can’t do it ourselves if we are outnumbered,” he said.
He urged the international community to take action against China.
“Because they (the Chinese) are disregarding international law. Even now they are still in our EEZ, although some are drifting away to the north. We will continue to push them out,” he said.
Hikmahanto Juwana, an international relations expert at the University of Indonesia, said Jakarta should take a harder line on China over the territorial encroachment.
“Indonesia can protest a thousand times but [violations] will continue to happen if the area is empty and there is no fishing activity. Indonesia should not have just expelled the boats, but arrested them,” he said.
Indonesia began a crackdown on illegal fishing after President Joko Widodo took office in 2014. Under the leadership of Susi Pudjiastuti, the Fisheries and Marine Resources Ministry sank more than 550 boats caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters during a five-year period.
But the policy of sinking foreign boats is in doubt under the new minister, Edhy Prabowo.
Edhy said last month that the scuttling of confiscated boats was “a good policy, but it was not enough.”
“What to do after that? We have to develop the industry. How is our fisheries industry faring? What about our fishermen’s yield? These are things we have to improve,” he said.
Edhy said his ministry was considering donating impounded boats to local fishermen with court approval, instead of destroying them.