The Jakarta Post
With the April 17 presidential and legislative elections less than two months away, Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan’s recent nationalistic statement on Natuna was clearly aimed at countering the opposition’s accusation that the government feared China’s economic and military dominance. But did the minister make thorough considerations before repeating this oft-spoken statement on Natuna?
“We will increase opportunities for our fishermen there. We are angered when other people go and fish there, while none of our fishermen are there,” Luhut said last week.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has demonstrated his commitment to developing the country’s outermost islands and border areas, and to protecting our resource-rich seas from poaching by foreign vessels. Luhut evidently wanted to demonstrate that the government was prepared for any foreign powers that wished to intrude into Indonesia’s territory.
The government’s position on Natuna is very clear, and the nation wholeheartedly agrees. But should it be repeated again and again? The minister should also remember the unnecessary, humiliating diplomatic setback the government experienced in 2017, when China protested the government’s intention to name the waters around Natuna the North Natuna Sea on its domestic map.
China does not have a territorial claim over Natuna or its waters, but has nevertheless has placed it within its “nine-dash line” map and regards the waters as traditional fishing grounds of its fishermen. The Navy has seized and destroyed hundreds of fishing vessels in the area, mostly from China, Vietnam and Thailand. Vietnam has an overlapping claim over the waters with Indonesia.
The minister knows full well the impacts of such an important announcement, which was made at a joint press conference with other ministers, including Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti.
As part of the government’s efforts to protect Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Jokowi has been determined to develop Natuna into a fisheries hub with sophisticated facilities. Japan is also involved in the Natuna project as part of its commitment to helping development of Indonesia’s outermost islands.
By talking loudly about the government’s non-negotiable sovereignty over Natuna, Luhut wanted to convince Indonesians that the government would take, and had taken, all necessary measures to prevent China’s aggressive actions in the resources-rich area.
The retired general actually just reiterated the scheduled completion of comprehensive fishing grounds in the Natuna Islands, located on the edge of the South China Sea. Jokowi visited Natuna in 2017 and vowed to ensure that no outside powers would disrupt Indonesia’s rights over the territory and its surrounding waters.
Minister Luhut’s statement on Natuna was unsurprising, given the looming general election. But please just refrain from harping on the same old song and just do it. Protect the Natunas.