Indonesia signaled a harder stance over incursions by Chinese fishing boats in its waters, saying the encroachments appeared to be part of an effort by Beijing to extend its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Indonesia’s navy last week detained a vessel fishing off the Natuna Islands and arrested seven fishermen after firing warning shots in the air, according to Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi. China’s foreign ministry said the men were operating in “China’s traditional fishing” grounds, “where China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests.”
“We suspect that this is structured activity because they were guarded, which means that it was blessed by the government,” Rear Admiral A. Taufiq R., commander of Indonesia’s Western Fleet, told reporters on Tuesday in Jakarta, adding the fishing boat was shot at when it refused to stop and that no one was injured. “That was why China raised a protest, because they think that the area is theirs.”
More Chinese fishing boats have been detected in the vicinity this year, he said. “We need to resolve this issue. If not, they will make a one-sided claim to the waters.”
Indonesia’s public irritation at the presence of Chinese fishing boats in the area — along with that country’s coast guard — risks drawing it more formally into frictions between other Southeast Asian nations and Beijing over the South China Sea. In March, Indonesia detained the crew of a fishing boat in a scuffle involving a Chinese coast guard vessel.
“We are beginning to see Indonesia reevaluate its policy on the broader South China Sea dispute, but we don’t really have the new policy yet,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “I suspect there is real reluctance from some quarters to anger China.”
China has in turn explicitly referred for the first time to a dispute with Indonesia over maritime territory, Connelly said. China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and a sizable source of investment into the country.
China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea pit it against the likes of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Its assertions are based on a vague line drawn on a 1940s map.
Indonesia isn’t a formal claimant and had previously sought to be neutral in the tensions, even as President Joko Widodo became more activist in detaining fishing boats and in some cases blowing them up. Indonesia said in April that it would deploy U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets to the Natunas to ward off “thieves.”
Indonesia has detained 57 ships in the Natuna area this year for illegal fishing, according to Susi Pudjiastuti, minister for maritime affairs and fisheries. Of those, three were Chinese boats and 49 were Vietnamese.
“We don’t discriminate just because they’re Chinese,” she told reporters on Tuesday in Jakarta. “Whether they’re Thai, Chinese, even American fishermen, we would detain them just the same. Good neighbors shouldn’t steal.”
Chinese passports issued in 2012 showed a territorial line passing through the exclusive economic zone that Indonesia derives from the Natuna islands, an area that may hold large natural gas and other energy reserves. An international court is expected to shortly rule on a Philippine challenge to China’s claims over the sea.
China may be boosting its presence ahead of the arbitration ruling by the court in The Hague in order to bolster its claim that the South China Sea is its traditional waters, Taufiq said.
“I don’t know the way of their thinking, but the logic is because a result will be announced, then they have to show that ‘we are here’.”
China has in recent years built 3,200 acres (1,300 hectares) of land on seven features in the Spratly Islands to the northeast of the Natunas, completing a military-grade airstrip on one. Its coast guard has stepped up patrols, interceding to protect fishing boats. Malaysia’s foreign affairs ministry summoned China’s ambassador in March to register concern over the alleged encroachment of Chinese-flagged boats.
Yudith Ho and Eko Listiyorini contributed.