Indonesia sends warships to monitor Chinese coast guard vessel

Tria Dianti and RFA staff
2023.01.17
Jakarta
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Indonesia sends warships to monitor Chinese coast guard vessel A Chinese Coast Guard vessel (top) is seen near a ship of the Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, May 14, 2014.
Nguyen Minh/Reuters

Indonesian officials said they were not worried about the presence of China’s largest coast guard ship in the Natuna Sea.

Jakarta has sent naval ships and a patrol aircraft to the area to monitor the Chinese ship’s movements but the Navy’s Chief, Adm. Muhammad Ali, said everything was “under control.”

Vietnamese analysts, however, are concerned the Chinese ship’s presence may signal a prolonged stand-off in the newly demarcated maritime boundaries.

Last month, Vietnam and Indonesia concluded talks on the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), which also lie within the imaginary “nine-dash line” that Beijing uses to demarcate what it calls its “historical rights” over almost 90% of the South China Sea.

An EEZ gives a state exclusive access to the natural resources in the waters and seabed.

Hanoi and Jakarta have not disclosed details of the agreement and China has not protested officially, but Beijing’s largest coast guard ship has been in the area between Vietnam and Indonesia since Dec. 30.

The CCG 5901, also the world’s largest coast guard ship, was still in the area on Tuesday, according to ship tracker Marine Traffic.

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Past track of China’s CCG 5901, the world’s largest coast guard ship, from Dec. 29, 2022, to Jan. 17. [MarineTraffic]

‘There are no problems’

A spokesperson at the Chinese embassy in Jakarta told BenarNews the Chinese ship was “in sea areas that China has jurisdiction in accordance with domestic law and international laws.”

A United Nations tribunal in 2016 invalidated the “nine-dash line” but Beijing has so far rejected the ruling, insisting that China has jurisdiction over all areas within the line.

“It’s for the purpose of maritime security and order,” the official was quoted as saying.

In response, Adm. Muhammad Ali told BenarNews on Tuesday “we have at least three to four warships in Natuna on the ready and one marine patrol aircraft.” 

Ali added the Indonesian Air Force’s drones would also be deployed “for joint patrols in the North Natuna Sea.”

“There are no problems,” he said.

Satya Pratama, a senior Indonesian government official and a former captain at Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency Bakamla, said the presence of warships in the area is “not abnormal.”

“The Indonesian Navy regularly patrols the area so I don’t think the fact that the ships are there alone will escalate the tension,” Pratama told Radio Free Asia.

“It happened before. It is just parties sending messages,” he said, adding that “nobody would want additional tension in the area” where the Indonesian government has just passed an oil and gas development plan.

Earlier this month, Indonesia’s Upstream Oil and Gas Regulatory Task Force (SKK Migas) approved the plan to develop the Tuna oil and gas field, also known as the Tuna Block, in the North Natuna area.

The Tuna Block lies entirely inside Indonesia’s EEZ and just 13 km (8 miles) from the border of the Vietnamese EEZ but the area is frequented by Chinese law enforcement and fishing boats.

Vietnam’s concerns

Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia have all accused China of disrupting their oil and gas exploration activities with frequent incursions by Chinese coast guard and maritime militia ships, leading to confrontations.

Vietnamese analysts said the deployment of the CCG 5901, dubbed the “monster” ship and armed with heavy machine guns, may be China’s response to the Vietnam-Indonesia maritime limitation agreement.

Le Hong Hiep, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the Chinese coast guard ship’s operating area is “very close to the supposed boundary between Vietnam and Indonesia,” and it is an indication of China’s protest.

Viet Hoang, another Vietnamese analyst and university lecturer, said he fears this may signal a “prolonged stand-off in the area.”

“China will not let it [the Vietnam-Indonesia agreement] go easily,” he said.

In 2021, Chinese survey and coast guard ships loitered uninvited for almost a month in the North Natuna area, where Indonesia’s oil and gas exploration was underway.

Van Pham, who runs an independent research project focusing on the South China Sea, points to another area of Vietnam’s concerns – the Vanguard Bank.

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Vanguard Bank is located within Vietnam’s EEZ. [Google Maps]

It is an entirely submerged feature that hosts three Vietnamese outposts, located within Vietnam’s EEZ and about 400 km (249 miles) from Indonesia’s Riau Islands, north of the Natuna Sea.

“Chinese coast guard ships are known to be present at a very regular frequency around the Vanguard Bank, from where they monitor and from time to time harass Vietnam’s oil exploration activities nearby,” said the chief administrator of the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative.

The Vanguard Bank is a known South China Sea flashpoint between Vietnam and China. 

In July 2019, a Chinese Coast Guard contingent accompanied a Chinese survey vessel operating within Vietnam’s waters around the bank, causing diplomatic outcry and a tense, months-long standoff between the Vietnamese and Chinese coast guards.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

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