China has a right to sail ships near the Natuna Islands, a foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday, as Beijing hardened its stance in a diplomatic spat after Indonesia protested about dozens of Chinese boats, including two coast guard ships, entering its Exclusive Economic Zone late last month.
When a reporter asked him about an Indonesian government statement a day earlier saying there was “no legal basis” to Beijing’s claims that its ships could sail in Indonesia’s exclusive zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected that assertion.
China’s “position and propositions comply with international law, including UNCLOS [the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea],” he told a press conference in the Chinese capital. “So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters.”
“The so-called award of the South China Sea arbitration is illegal, null and void and we have long made it clear that China neither accepts nor recognizes it. The Chinese side firmly opposes any country, organization or individual using the invalid arbitration award to hurt China’s interests,” he said.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in its complaint against China, saying there was no legal basis for Beijing to claim historical rights in the sea. Beijing rejected the ruling and launched a building spree in territories it controls in the sea.
On Monday, Indonesian officials summoned Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian and lodged a protest with Beijing after confirming that 63 Chinese fishing boats and two coast guard ships had sailed into Jakarta’s territorial waters off the Natuna islands since Dec. 19.
The next day, as he responded to the initial criticism from Indonesia, Geng told a press conference that China had sovereignty over the Nansha Islands – the Chinese name for the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea – “and has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters near the Nansha Islands.”
“China has historical rights in the South China Sea” and Chinese fishermen have long been engaging in “legal and legitimate” fishery activities in waters near those islands, he told reporters Tuesday.
“The China Coast Guard were performing their duty by carrying out routine patrols to maintain maritime order and protect our people’s legitimate rights and interests in the relevant waters,” the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman added.
On Wednesday, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement dismissing China’s historical claims to the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on the grounds that Chinese fishermen have long been active in those waters. Those claims are “unilateral” and “have no legal basis and have never been recognized by the 1982 UNCLOS,” the Indonesian ministry said.
“We urge China to explain the legal basis and provide clear a definition for its claims on Indonesian EEZ based on 1982 UNCLOS,” the statement said.
China, through its so-called Nine-Dash Line – vaguely located demarcations on maps – claims most of the South China Sea as its own, while Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims.
In 2016, a dispute erupted between Indonesia and China after Beijing accused the Indonesian Navy of firing at a Chinese fishing boat and injuring a crew member during a standoff in Natuna waters, an area that Beijing claimed as its traditional fishing ground. Indonesian officials said warning shots were fired at several Chinese-flagged ships allegedly encroaching, but no one was injured.
In 2017, Indonesia asserted its claim to the region at the far southern end of the South China Sea by renaming the waters around the islands as the North Natuna Sea and establishing an integrated military unit in the chain.
Muhammad Haripin, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said Jakarta should take a stronger stance against foreign fishing boats entering its waters illegally.
“They must be arrested so that there is a deterrent effect,” Haripin told BenarNews. “The government can also provide security for Indonesian fishermen so they will not be afraid to go to the sea.”