Updated at 8:59 p.m. ET on 2020-08-20
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Thursday she had demanded during a working visit to China that Beijing ensure Indonesian sailors are safe on China-flagged fishing vessels, after more than a dozen died aboard such boats in less than a year.
At a virtual press conference from Sanya city in Hainan province, on day two of a three-day working visit to China, Retno also said she had stressed to her Chinese counterpart that respect for international law in the South China Sea was necessary for strong ties between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations.
"I conveyed again our concern about the cases that have befallen Indonesian crew members who work on Chinese fishing vessels," Retno said. "I emphasized that this issue is no longer an issue between the private sector, but that the government must be involved to ensure that these humanitarian violations do not occur in the future."
During talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Retno said she also asked him for legal assistance in presenting witnesses as part of a transparent investigation into human trafficking aboard a China-flagged fishing boat, the Long Xin 629.
“And this request was responded to positively by the Chinese state councilor and foreign minister,” Retno said, referring to Wang by his different titles.
In April, Indonesian officials reported the deaths of four Indonesians who had served as crew on the Long Xin 629. It was the first publicized case of Indonesian nationals who had died aboard Chinese boats under working conditions said to be harsh and strenuous, according to labor activists and officials.
Soon after, Retno announced that Jakarta and Beijing were launching a joint investigation into allegations of abuse against Indonesian sailors.
Since April, more reports have surfaced about deaths among Indonesian crew members aboard China-flagged ships, with some of their bodies abandoned at sea. In all, at least 16 Indonesians have died while working on Chinese boats, amid allegations of abuse. It was not immediately clear why Retno asked for assistance with human trafficking aboard only one vessel.
South China Sea
In her latest talks with the Chinese foreign minister, Retno said she expressed concern about escalating tensions in the contested South China Sea, while urging Beijing to abide by international laws.
“China is one of ASEAN’s important partners,” Retno said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “[This] partnership will continue to be strong as long as the partnership is always carried out with respect to international law, including on the issue of the South China Sea.”
China, Taiwan and four ASEAN states – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei – have overlapping territorial claims in the strategic sea region, where Beijing has been expanding its military presence.
Indonesia is not among the countries with officials claims to the sea but in 2016 and late 2019, tensions rose between Jakarta and Beijing over the presence of Chinese fishing boats swarming in South China Sea waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
During talks with Wang Yi late last month, Retno urged China to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China claims it has “historic rights” to most of the sea, but in a landmark case in 2016, an international court of arbitration ruled against China and in favor of the Philippines in finding that Beijing’s claims demarcated by a so-called nine-dash line were not supported under UNCLOS.
As a signatory of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a treaty set up by ASEAN that aims to establish a code of conduct in the sea region, China is obligated to try to resolve disputes related to the waterway, Indonesia’s foreign minister said.
In recent weeks and months, tensions have risen in the South China Sea amid naval maneuvers and exercises conducted by China and the United States, with officials from the rival superpowers also engaging in heated rhetoric lately.
On Thursday, Vietnam signaled its displeasure with China over Beijing’s reported deployment of a group of H-6J bombers to the South China Sea in late July.
The warplanes were sent there to participate in anti-ship drills, according to China’s Ministry of Defense and Chinese state media. At least one bomber landed on Woody Island, China’s largest military base in the Paracel Islands, which are a chain of rocks and reefs disputed between China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
“The fact that relevant sides sent weapons and bombers ... not only violates Vietnam’s sovereignty but also jeopardizes the situation in the area,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang told a press briefing.
“We call for parties to responsibly contribute to the maintenance of peace, stability and security in the East Sea,” she said, using the Vietnamese name for the South China Sea.
China’s militarization of its bases in the sea region, however, is set to continue.
Satellite imagery showed three fighter jets at Woody Island on Aug. 13. What appear to be two Shaanxi Y-9 military transport aircraft landed on Woody Island on Aug. 17, along with a surveillance plane.
Another surveillance plane and military transport aircraft is visible at Fiery Cross Reef, one of China’s biggest military bases in the Spratly chain of features in the South China Sea, on Aug. 16.
The Vietnamese service of Radio Free Asia contributed to this report.