The Jakarta Post
The March 20 incident between Indonesian maritime patrol ships and Chinese coast guard vessels raises a serious question over Indonesia's dispute-settlement capacity on issues surrounding maritime borders and resources, an Australian expert said.
Given that it appears the Indonesian government has opted to resolve the incident through diplomatic channels it must draw a clear line with China, says Christopher Roberts, an associate professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
Roberts said Indonesia should use some private signaling to insist on what is acceptable.
'Perhaps the current [diplomatic] approach is good but there needs to be some clear signaling behind the scenes that there are some limits,' he told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of a discussion at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Tuesday.
The latest maritime spat between Indonesia and China revolves around an incident involving vessels deployed by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry and the Navy, and Chinese coast guard vessels in the waters off the Natuna Islands.
Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti called China arrogant and accused its coast guard of obstructing law enforcement after the incident, in which the Chinese coast guard intercepted Indonesian patrol boats towing the 2,000 gross-ton Kway Fey 10078, a Chinese fishing boat caught operating illegally near the Natuna Islands.
Indonesia's naval base in Natuna said the Chinese vessel was found operating within an 83,515-square kilometer area at the intersection of Indonesia's EEZ, its continental shelf boundary and China's so-called nine-dash line, which purports to delineate Chinese territory.
'This is not the first event involving Chinese fishing vessels. There have now been at least two events leading to some serious concerns in the past, with China jamming Indonesian radio equipment,' Roberts said.
He said he was informed by the Foreign Ministry that Indonesia had sent diplomatic notes expressing concern regarding the nine-dash line and whether it could overlap with Indonesia's EEZ and continental shelf areas in past years.
'Initially there was no response. Then they sent a diplomat out to Beijing who was verbally informed that China's interests do not conflict with Indonesia's interests,' he said.
Roberts believed that such incidents might recur given what China had been doing in the region. He was of the opinion that the Indonesian government should immediately make its message known at the highest level that if such incidents occurred in the future, Indonesia would insist publicly on clarification of the nine-dash line and a written guarantee that China's interests did not conflict with Indonesia's own territorial claims, which conform to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The assistant to the coordinating maritime affairs minister on maritime sovereignty, Arif Havas Oegroseno, said that Roberts was not in a position to make the suggestion considering Australia's weak maritime stance on China.
'Is Australia being firm with China? What about the Darwin port that is leased to China for 99 years? Is that a tough measure?' he told the Post. 'Australia must explain the geostrategic implication of letting China operate its strategic port for 99 years.'
Indonesia and its neighbors are increasingly wary of China's presence in the South China Sea, as disputing claims affect islands, features and fishing areas in the waters around China's self-declared nine-dash line. Indonesia has not formally declared itself among the claimants on disputed areas with China, while President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo is continuing his predecessors' efforts to woo Chinese investment.
Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan said that the government still needed to maintain good relations with China.
'We need to retain the balance,' he told reporters in Papua.
Luhut said that adding firepower and the deployment of more personnel to the Natuna area would not be made immediately, but noted that the Indonesian Military (TNI) had long planned to reinforce the region.
'The TNI wants to develop Natuna into a stronger military base, in line with the economic growth of the country, and this has been in the works for a long time,' he explained.
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