Updated at 11:15 a.m. ET on 2019-05-09
Indonesia next weekend plans to sink dozens of foreign boats that were seized after straying illegally into its waters, including many vessels from Vietnam, the fisheries minister said Monday amid fresh maritime tensions between Hanoi and Jakarta near the South China Sea.
Also on Monday, Indonesia’s foreign ministry said it summoned Hanoi’s deputy ambassador after the Indonesian navy claimed that two Vietnamese coast guard vessels had rammed one of its naval ships patrolling against illegal fishing near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
Indonesia on Saturday will resume its practice of sinking confiscated foreign vessels, Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said.
“On the 4th (of May) we will be sinking 51 boats, mostly from Vietnam,” Susi said Monday via Twitter.
This past Saturday, an Indonesian naval ship, the KRI TPD-381, was chasing a Vietnamese trawler suspected to be fishing illegally in the North Natuna Sea, when the Vietnamese coast guard ships engaged in dangerous maneuvers, Indonesia’s navy said.
“This morning the deputy ambassador of Vietnam was summoned to the foreign ministry,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir told reporters.
“Indonesia deeply regrets the incident involving the Vietnamese fisheries surveillance ships KN-213 and KN-264 and the Indonesian Navy KRI TPD-381 vessel,” he said.
The actions of the Vietnamese government-owned vessels endangered the safety of Indonesian naval personnel and violated international law, Arrmanatha said.
It was not the first incident involving a naval ship and Vietnam’s fisheries surveillance ships in the area.
In February, the navy also expelled two Vietnamese government-owned ships from Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) after they showed hostile intent, minister Susi said at that time.
Since 2014, when Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s government began fighting suspected marine poachers, at least 488 foreign boats accused of illegal fishing, including 276 Vietnamese-flagged vessels, have been sunk, after crewmen had been removed, according to the Ministry of Fisheries.
Incident at sea
Saturday’s clash at sea began when the crew of the naval ship was about to arrest 12 Vietnamese fishermen suspected of fishing in Indonesian territory, said Adm. Yudo Margono, Indonesia’s Navy Fleet 1 commander.
“It turned out that a vessel operated by the ‘Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance’ tried to obstruct the law-enforcement process,” he said, calling the move a provocation.
He said the Vietnamese coast guard ship struck the left side of the Indonesian vessel and also hit the fishing boat, which eventually capsized.
A video released by the Navy on social media showed the Vietnamese vessel ramming into the Indonesian warship. Indonesian navy crewmen who were armed with rifles could be heard shouting expletives toward the Vietnamese boat.
Yudo said 12 crew members of the Vietnamese fishing boat were subsequently arrested. They would face trial on charges of illegal fishing, he said.
Two other crew members jumped into the water and were rescued by one of the Vietnamese coast guard boats, he said.
Yudo called on navy personnel to exercise restraint in facing similar incidents.
“We should not be reckless,” he said, referring to the Vietnamese coast guard, as he underscored that the action taken by the Indonesian navy had been according to procedure.
Muhammad Arif, a South China Sea researcher at The Habibie Center, a Jakarta based NGO promoting human rights and democratization of Indonesian society, said frequent clashes involving naval patrol ships and foreign vessels the North Natuna Sea were partly due to unfinished negotiations on the maritime delimitation in the area.
“Negotiations on a few spots in the North Natuna Sea with Vietnam have not been completed,” he said.
“Such clashes are common but if this keeps happening tensions will increase and it could undermine stability in the ASEAN region,” he said.
Indonesia, meanwhile, is developing the so-called Integrated Marine and Fisheries Center in the North Natuna Sea in the far southern reaches of the South China Sea, as it seeks to assert sovereignty amid claims of overlapping rights by China.
In 2016, navy patrols confronted Chinese fishing boats in waters off the islands at least three times, as the government increased its crackdown on illegal fishing.
Indonesia accused the Chinese of fishing within Indonesia’s EEZ. China responded by calling the waters traditional fishing grounds and said there were overlapping “maritime rights and interests” in the area.
Tensions between China and its neighbors have risen as the superpower 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 it has recently asserted its claim by unveiling in July 2017 an updated national map in which the country’s northern reaches – the area north of the Natuna Islands – had been renamed the North Natuna Sea and part of its EEZ.
That area had previously been marked in Indonesian maps as South China Sea.
In December, the Indonesian military also inaugurated an integrated unit in the Natunas to ward off illegal fishing and strengthen security.
The unit, composed of a few hundred personnel including members of army engineering corps, will be equipped with a surface-to-air missile defense systems, the military said. Other facilities include a port, a hangar to support military aircraft and a hospital.
In the future, the unit will become part of Indonesia’s Regional Defense Joint Command and will include army, air force and navy personnel, officials said.
An earlier version incorrectly identified the organization associated with Muhammad Arif, a South China Sea researcher.