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Q&A: Illegal fishing in Natuna and the South China Sea dispute

  • Devina Heriyanto
    Devina Heriyanto

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Fri, April 15, 2016 | 04:33 pm
Q&A: Illegal fishing in Natuna and the South China Sea dispute Strong protest: Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi says the Indonesian government has conveyed a note of protest to the Chinese government over the recent move of China-flagged fishing vessel MV Kwang Fey 10078 and a Chinese coast guard vessel, which entered into Indonesian waters in Natuna, Riau Islands. (Kompas.com/Sabrina Asril)

Indonesia captured a Chinese fishing vessel for fishing illegally within the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone near Natuna Island last week. This incident did not only raise tensions in the area but also lead the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi to summon the Chinese Ambassador for Indonesia. 

What happened in Natuna?

An Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry patrol ship intercepted the Chinese fishing vessel on Saturday off the Natuna islands. The area is within the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone, meaning that only Indonesian citizens have the rights to exploit the riches of the area. The Chinese vessel was captured for fishing illegally within the area. 

However, the situation is complicated since China views the location as its rightful territory based on historical reasons, meaning that in the Chinese perspective, the vessel should not have been captured at all. That is why when the Chinese vessel was towed by Indonesian patrol vessel, a nearby Chinese coast guard intervened and prevented the detainment by Indonesian authorities.

The Indonesian authorities released the Chinese vessel but detained its crew.

Does it count as a territorial dispute?

It’s complicated. A territorial dispute means that there are two countries with overlapping claims over one area, land or sea, in which each country tries to negate or contest the claim of the other. 

In this case, China does not contest that Natuna rightfully belongs to Indonesia. However, China argues that it still has rights to fish in the area.

A spokeswoman from the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that, “The sovereignty of Natuna belongs to Indonesia. China has no objections to this.” However, China refused the accusation that the vessel was fishing illegally since the fishermen was operating in ‘traditional Chinese fishing grounds’.
Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, has commented that if China recognizes that Natuna belongs to Indonesia,  “China can't lay a historical claim to that very same area.”

Responding to China’s ‘traditional Chinese fishing grounds’ argument, Edy Yusuf, the Foreign Ministry's director for East Asia and the Pacific region, stated that traditional fishing rights must be agreed on by a treaty over a particular area, based on UNCLOS. Indonesia and China do not have such a treaty.

Rizal Sukma, the Indonesian ambassador to the UK and prominent International Relations expert, stated that Indonesia has to treat the incident as a fishing dispute instead of a territorial dispute, in order to maintain bilateral relations with China and also regional stability in Southeast Asia.

Natuna is located on the Southern edge of South China Sea, 80% of which is historically claimed by China based. China’s historical claim over the South China Sea is challenged by several countries with overlapping claims.

What is happening in the South China Sea?

A heated territorial dispute involving the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan (Republic of China), and several ASEAN member states. 

South China Sea is a large body of water separating mainland Asia and archipelagic countries like Philippines and Indonesia. It has strategic importance as the second busiest sea trade route, an abundance natural resources particularly oil, and contains one third of the entire world's marine biodiversity.

Indonesia rejects China’s nine-dash-line since the claim is based on historical grounds, which is not recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

Recent developments on the South China Sea dispute can be found here.

Is Indonesia involved in the South China Sea dispute?

The nine-dash-line representing China’s claim over the South China Sea actually overlaps with a small part of Indonesian waters north of Natuna Island, which is a part of Indonesian Economic Exclusive Zone. However, Indonesia maintains its position as a ‘non-claimant’ in the dispute.  Although to some extent, China’s claim in the South China Sea will impact Indonesian sovereignty on the overlapping zone.

Even after the latest illegal fishing dispute, rooted in the differences of perspective between Indonesia and China regarding the use of water near Natuna, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla still stated that, “Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial disputes.”

Indonesia and China both maintain civility regarding the overlapping claim. However, should there be more Chinese activity in the Indonesian EEZ near Natuna, another conflict like this one will likely happen.

What has Indonesia done so far in response to the dispute?

Indonesia has taken the lead in the diplomacy between ASEAN member states who are involved in the dispute and China. Given that Indonesia does not have any claim in the South China Sea, Indonesia acts as an “honest broker.”

Since Indonesia does have interests in the issue near Natuna, albeit small in the context, its role as an “honest broker” could be affected.

What Indonesia will do?

Indonesia’s Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister has expressed the possibility to take the case to the Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, which differs from the action taken by the Philippines using the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

However, the Foreign Affairs Ministry still has not expressed approval. Commenting on Minister Susi’s plan to take the case to the Tribunal, a spokesman from the ministry stated that, “Not every problem should be resolved with overreaction.”

In a meeting with President Joko Widodo, a group of experts warned the President that taking the case to international court will harm bilateral ties with China. Moreover, the Indonesian patrol vessel involved is not listed with the International Maritime Organization as a government vessel. The status of the vessel will weaken Indonesian position in the legal battle.

In the meantime, security within Indonesian territory will be strengthened. Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan said that better-equipped patrol boats and other defense systems will be deployed.

The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry also announced the deployment of bigger ships more capable to counter foreign illegal vessels. Since Jokowi’s administration, Indonesia has been more attentive to secure its territory from foreign fishing boats illegally fishing in its waters. A decree was signed to establish a special anti-illegal fishing unit under Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry.

The Indonesian Navy's Aviation Center and the US Navy held a joint sea surveillance exercise in the Malacca Strait and around Natuna Island on April 7-10. The Navy Aviation Center commander, First Commodore Sigit Setiyanta, stated the drill was routine since 2012 and not related to the South China Sea dispute.

Rp 1 trillion (US$76 million) was allocated by the Indonesian government this year to build education, healthcare and transportation facilities in Riau Islands, besides strengthening military installations facing the South China Sea. Riau Islands Border Management Agency head Edy Sofyan stated that the fund was for “escalating issues regarding the South China Sea”. 13 out of 17 border districts in the Riau Islands are located in Natuna and Anambas regencies, bordering the South China Sea. (dan)

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