MANILA, Philippines — While the Duterte government refuses to invoke the Philippines’ legal victory in the South China Sea arbitration, Southeast Asian neighbor Indonesia has successfully defended its sovereignty against China.
The latest report from Indonesia’s armed forces indicates that Chinese vessels encroaching on the vicinity of the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea have left the area.
Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone from the Natuna waters overlap with China’s so-called nine-dash line, which the Hague-based arbitral tribunal invalidated in its July 2016 ruling.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Indonesia has sovereign rights to the resources up to 200 nautical miles from an inhabited territory.
Just last week, Indonesia lodged a diplomatic protest over the presence of a Chinese coast guard vessel in the Natuna waters. The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian to complain about Beijing’s violations in its EEZ.
The Chinese vessel is suspected to have engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities in the area.
1. Indonesia cited the Philippines v. China decision
In a statement posted on its official website, the Indonesian foreign ministry cited the July 2016 arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea, pointing out that China’s historical claims do not have legal basis.
“China’s historical claim to EEZ on the grounds that Chinese fishermen have long been active in the waters referred to are unilateral, has no legal basis and has never been recognized by UNCLOS 1982,” the statement read, according to an unofficial translation.
In response to this complaint, the Chinese Foreign Ministry insisted that Beijing has historic rights in the contested waterway.
“Chinese fishermen have been carrying out normal fishery production activities in the relevant waters of the Nansha Islands in China, which is legal and reasonable,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang earlier said.
Jakarta, however, rejected Beijing’s claim of “relevant waters” in the South China Sea as it is not included in the UNCLOS.
Stressing that Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with China based on the UNCLOS, Jakarta urged Beijing to explain the legal basis and clear boundaries of its claims in the Natuna waters within Indonesian EEZ.
2. Indonesia sent its own fishermen
The Indonesian government also directed some 120 fishers to operate in the Natuna waters in response to China’s incursions in their EEZ.
Indonesian Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD was quoted as saying, “You will, in addition to exercising your rights as citizens, also make good on your duty to help defend the country, to show that these waters are ours,” Jakarta Post reported.
Jakarta assured its fishermen that the government will oversee their activities in the area.
3. Indonesia deployed military assets
Earlier this week, the Indonesian military confirmed that it has deployed fighter jets and warships to patrol islands in the Natuna waters.
Indonesia spokesman Fajar Tri Rohadi confirmed that they have deployed eight warships in the area.
This follows earlier deployment of around 600 personnel from the Indonesian navy, army and air force to conduct regular patrol in the area due to the presence of foreign vessels.
4. Indonesia’s president sailed the waters
Indonesian President Joko Widodo himself visited the islands last Wednesday to handover land certificates for locals and to meet with hundreds of local fisherfolk, according to a report from The Jakarta Post.
Following Widodo’s visit to Riau Islands in the Natuna waters, the Indonesian military confirmed that the Chinese vessels have left the area.
“The Chinese vessels that have conducted illegal fishing have exited the [exclusive economic zone], after our president’s arrival in Natuna,” military spokesman Maj. Gen. Sisriadi said, according to a report from South China Morning Post.
Contrary to Widodo’s move of going to the area where China is encroaching on their country’s EEZ, Duterte has been consistent on his position that the Philippines is not equipped to go war with China.
“If we go to war against China, I would lose all my soldiers just as they are leaving for the war. It will be a massacre. We don’t have the capacity to fight them,” Duterte said in March last year.
While Duterte has been insisting that invoking the arbitral ruling would risk going to war with China, Beijing’s top diplomat in Manila assured the Philippines that their military follows a parth of “peaceful development.”
Former Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua earlier said Beijing develops its national defense to defend their own country and “contribute to world peace and stability.”
“China adopts a military strategy of active defense which adheres to the principle of defense, self-defense and post-strike response. Meaning we will not take the first shot,” Zhao said in July 2019.