Indonesia’s recent diplomatic protest to China over the resumption of alleged illegal trans-border fishing near the waters of the Natuna Islands marks a new episode of conflict management in the South China Sea.
The scholar Ann Marie Murphy in 2014 predicted the unavoidable “game changer” in the South China Sea after Indonesia officially protested China’s “nine-dash line” map at the UN in 2010 and requested China’s clarification.
Up until the recent incident, China never replied to this request. China unilaterally declared their map in 2009.
Our Defense Ministry alerted everyone to the potential conflict near Natuna waters by making the area a priority for naval patrol.
Following the incident of March 19, Jakarta is clearly unable to maintain its neutral position as a non-claimant; neither can it aspire further to be an independent mediator in the conflict over the South China Sea.
On March 19, a Chinese coast guard vessel was reported to have intentionally hit the Chinese fishing boat Kway Fey to stop it from being pulled by the Indonesian authority’s vessel to Indonesian shores.
The KM Kway Fey was towed and its crew was transferred to Indonesia’s KP Hiu 11 by a patrol from the Indonesian Navy; the Chinese boat’s crew was apprehended for illegal fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, according to the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry.
Similar incidents occurred in 2013 and in 2010 when a Chinese coast guard boat, the Yuzheng 311, reportedly pointed a machine gun at an Indonesian patrol boat to make it release a Chinese fishing boat apprehended for illegal fishing.
In response to Jakarta’s protest the Chinese Foreign Ministry reaffirmed official recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over the Natuna Islands but insisted its fishermen were conducting “normal” operations in their “traditional fishing grounds”.
The current firm position of Indonesia should not be a surprise. The maritime axis doctrine introduced by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has signaled the focus of Indonesian foreign policy on maritime issues, especially regarding illegal and unreported trans-border fishing.
Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s policy of burning boats found to be guilty of such practices within Indonesian waters is strongly supported by the Navy, following the increased military budget as promised by Jokowi’s administration.
Keyuan Zou, an expert in international law, wrote that China’s maritime vision developed especially after the Declaration of its Territorial Sea on Sept. 4, 1958 and China’s participation at the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea in 1971.