The Jakarta Post
The recent incident involving a Chinese coastguard vessel and Indonesia's Maritime and Fisheries Monitoring Task Force near Indonesia's Natuna Islands has once again highlighted the problem of illegal fishing in Indonesia-China relations.
This problem is particularly acute in the natural-resource-rich waters surrounding the Natuna Islands. Similar incidents ' the arrest by Indonesian patrol boats of Chinese fishermen fishing illegally ' have occurred in the past. The latest was in March 2013, when a Chinese patrol vessel managed to prevent the arrest of a Chinese ship by an Indonesian patrol boat.
In the past, both sides handled the issue quietly, in the hope that the problem would go away. The latest incident, however, clearly shows that such an approach can no longer work.
In fact, China's behavior has become more assertive, forcing Indonesia to respond accordingly. Therefore, before the issue spirals out of control, it is imperative that Indonesia and China start finding solutions to the problem.
Any settlement should be based on two facts.
First, Indonesia holds full sovereignty over the Natuna Islands and its territorial waters, and has an undisputable sovereign right over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the surrounding waters. China needs to unambiguously acknowledge this fact.
Second, once the above fact is fully and explicitly acknowledged, it is then clear that Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea dispute. Indonesia has no claim over any island, rock, atoll, reef and other features in the Spratly or Paracel islands. Nor does Indonesia take sides in the ongoing dispute between China and the four ASEAN claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei).
These two facts mean that the problem between Indonesia and China lies with fishing rights, not territorial disputes.
Therefore, Indonesia and China need to treat and address the problem as such. The two sides should not allow the problem to develop into a political, let alone territorial, feud.
This requires two important steps to be taken. First, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi, following the incident, has affirmed Indonesia's position clearly: China should support Indonesia's attempt to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and should never violate Indonesia's sovereignty or infringe upon Indonesia's EEZ and continental shelf. Simply put, China should respect and take the Indonesian position seriously.
China's argument that its fishermen were conducting activities in areas it considers 'traditional fishing grounds' is misleading. In fact, it could complicate the issue and aggravate efforts to find a solution to the problem.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, to which both Indonesia and China are parties, does not recognize such a concept. The two countries should abide by the convention; it is as simple as that.
Second, Indonesia and China should start discussing a joint strategy on how to combat the IUU problem in the area and beyond. Both Indonesia and China have pledged to work closely to combat organized crime at sea. Illegal fishing clearly comes under such crime, and inflicts an estimated US$20 billion in annual losses on Indonesia.
Unsurprisingly, Indonesia is taking serious steps to combat IUU in its waters, and China should position itself as a reliable partner in that undertaking.
Indonesia values its relationship with China as a comprehensive strategic partnership. So does China. In that context, it is inconceivable that the two nations cannot find an amicable solution to the problem. Indonesia-China relations are too important to be derailed by a dispute over fishing rights. However, without any immediate solution, the problem could quickly escalate into a serious political spat.
Solving this problem in Indonesia-China relations will also strengthen Indonesia's position as a neutral party in the South China Sea dispute. Indonesia's ability to act as an honest broker on this matter will benefit not only China-Indonesia bilateral ties but also the relationship between China and ASEAN.
After all, the future of stability in the region depends on how well ASEAN and China can manage the South China Sea issue. Indonesia is well-placed and more than willing to facilitate the ongoing search for peace in the region.
The writer is Indonesian ambassador to the UK and former executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta. This is a personal view.
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