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Jakarta Post

China playing with fire over claim on Natuna waters

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Mon, January 6, 2020   /   08:32 am
China playing with fire over claim on Natuna waters A Chinese Coast Guard ship in Natuna waters is seen on a monitor displaying footage from a surveillance aircraft of the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU). (Antara/M Risyal Hidayat)

Actually, it was just a matter of time before the year-long skirmishes between Indonesian and Chinese fishermen, the latter often heavily guarded by China’s naval vessels, would escalate and become a more open quarrel between the two countries. But still, last week’s blunt statements by China’s Foreign Ministry on the Natuna Islands were shocking to many Indonesians.

In his press briefing in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry spokesman insisted that Chinese fishermen are free to fish in their “traditional” fishing area, which partly overlaps Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), because China’s “position and propositions comply with international law, including UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]”.

“So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters,” Geng Shuang asserted.  

Such an answer has been regularly issued on the South China Sea. Indonesia always tried to distance itself from the dispute, but this time Jakarta can no longer keep to that position. China realizes Indonesia is a key unifying factor for ASEAN, but now ASEAN faces a new situation in which its most important member will also be directly involved in the sensitive issue. The government would be in trouble domestically if it fails to appear firm in ensuring it retains control over the Natunas.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping to prevent a worsening situation. Jokowi is definitely under pressure domestically. He was often accused by his political opponents of being too weak against China for economic reasons. I disagree. The President is being very realistic, as are leaders of other nations.

President Xi needs to know the real feelings and sentiments of the Indonesian people. He will take it seriously when Jokowi honestly conveys his position to his counterpart. The Chinese leader needs to demonstrate more soft power diplomacy. Indonesia’s economy is indeed significantly dependent on China, but China also knows that such dependence will not last eternally. 

Indonesia and China are to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the normalization of  their diplomatic relations this year, which always sticks to the principle of mutually beneficial interests, trust and respect for their respective territorial integrity. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang soured the commemoration mood with his harsh assertion that no one could stop Chinese fishermen from fishing in Natuna waters. Is it hard to guess why Beijing chose this moment to challenge Indonesia? 

Indonesian officials said Indonesia has to do nothing with China over the Natuna Islands and their surrounding waters, as UNCLOS does not recognize “traditional” fishing grounds, and therefore Jakarta would not open any negotiations with Beijing. Among Indonesian Military officers, however, the common mood is that “China’s position is totally unacceptable and we should take concrete actions in the field”.

For millions of Indonesians, China’s diplomat has crossed the line by openly challenging Indonesia’s territorial integrity. Their pride as a nation has been wounded, for right or wrong reasons. “China can easily do it to smaller members of ASEAN, but not with us”, was the common reaction of Indonesians on social media.

The two countries reopened official ties after Indonesia unilaterally cut off relations following allegations that China was behind the foiled coup blamed on the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) on Sept. 30, 1965. China strongly denied the accusation. Only after 25 years, then president Soeharto agreed to reopen diplomatic ties. 

Since then, robust bilateral relations have grown, especially economically. Indonesia is the largest member of ASEAN and, along with Vietnam, the country is consistently wary of the world’s economic and military superpowers. Indonesia and many ASEAN members always prefer the military presence of the United States in this region, to counter China’s rising power. 

President Jokowi, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto have sounded firm but have refrained from sharply rebuking China, more with an eye to the potential domestic implications. Rather than fearing possible reprisal, they realize the implications could be serious domestically. Resentment against China remains despite warm diplomatic ties: just have a glimpse at the social media buzz.

Netizens have also raised demands to bring back the hugely popular former fishery and maritime minister, Susi Pudjiastuti. Millions of Indonesians adore her, particularly for her orders to sink foreign fishing vessels, including those of China and Vietnam, which were found guilty of poaching in Indonesian seas. Ordinary people don’t care about other officials’ statements that Susi’s “blowing up and sinking vessels” policy is mainly her PR. She remains their “Superwoman” guarding Indonesia’s seas. 

China claims nearly the whole of the South China Sea, as reflected in its “nine-dash line”, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan claim some parts of the resource-rich ocean territory. Indonesia itself is not a claimant in the South China Sea, but China’s claim based on the “history” of its fishermen’s traditional grounds around the Natunas could also be adopted by other nations. Fishermen from Sulawesi have fished for centuries in Australia’s waters, so could we also claim historic rights there? But wouldn’t that be ridiculous?

President Xi once said: "By turning antagonism to synergy, hostility to friendship, together we will forge a community of shared destiny for all humankind."

Maintaining sustainable relations between China and Indonesia is much more important than bickering over Natuna. Indonesians need China and vice versa. But the aspirations of the people at the grassroots level are often totally different from those of their leaders.