Indonesia: Drawing deeper into South China Sea conflict with China

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Indonesia is a not a claimant state involved in the South China Sea disputes. After all, Indonesia lies further off to the south of that sea.

However, the third skirmish involving Indonesia and China occurred on 20 June, when the Indonesian navy opened fire on a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel, injuring one Chinese fisherman. The skirmishes have been taking place in the exclusive economic zone near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which overlaps with the southern most areas of the South China Sea as claimed by China.

Indonesia’s Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said that his government would ask Beijing to respect Indonesian sovereignty over the waters around the Natuna Islands. “This is not a clash, but we are protecting the area,” he clarified.

Meanwhile, Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti tweeted a statement that the Indonesian navy had “made the right move by maintaining the sovereignty of our seas”, and that “stealing fish is a crime”.

Beijing, however, insisted that the skirmish took place in a “traditional Chinese fishing ground”. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry characterised Indonesia’s actions as an “indiscriminate use of force”, and added that “we urge the Indonesian side to refrain from any action that complicates or magnifies the dispute, or impacts the peace and stability of the region.”

The spokesperson for China also expressed hope that Indonesia could meet China “half-way” in maintaining stability in the region, given that both countries have overlapping claims “over the maritime interests in some waters of the South China Sea”.

It is hard to see why Indonesia would want to make a compromise with China on this point. Indonesia insists on its rights to an exclusive economic zone, as laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that extends 200 nautical miles from the Natuna Islands.

It is hard not to associate the latest skirmish with Indonesia’s latest pronouncement on the South China Sea disputes, which took place on the occasion of a particularly contentious China-ASEAN summit, held just days earlier in Kunming.

Around the time of that summit in mid-June, Indonesia released a public statement that saying that peace and stability would be hard to achieve without respect for international law – a mild statement, but one that represented a considerable stepping up of Indonesia’s tone.

Indonesia has been described at times by its fellow ASEAN member states as being “frustratingly quiet” on the South China Sea disputes. As the largest ASEAN member state with half the region’s population, its compatriots naturally expected it to take a stand on the disputes, despite Indonesia not being a claimant state.

Jokowi, in a show of strength

Three days after the skirmish near the Natuna Islands on 23 June, Indonesian President Joko Widodo sailed to the islands in a show of Indonesian resolve.

On board a naval warship near the Natuna islands, he held a meeting with some members of his cabinet, which discussed issues ranging from fishing, energy programmes and defence plans for the waters around the islands. The cabinet later issued a statement saying that President Widodo’s visit was “an affirmation that the [Natuna] islands are the sovereign territory” of Indonesia.

For years, Indonesia attempted to avoid wadding into territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a decades old conflict which had been revived in the past five years. Tensions have grown steadily in recent years after China began building artificial islands on reefs and atolls that it occupies in the South China Sea. In retaliation, China accuses the United States and its friends and allies in ASEAN of militarising the conflict.

The background to the latest Sino-Indonesia skirmish is the long overdue ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, regarding China’s maritime claims in the region. No date was set, but there has been immense anticipation of the ruling’s release since early May, around the time of the Philippine presidential election.

A stepping up of strength: from coast guards to the navy

The deployment of Indonesia’s navy to the Natuna Islands in place of vessels of the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries – coast guards, in essence – that had been protecting the waters from acts of fishing violations from foreign vessels.

The cause for this was an incident in March this year, when a Chinese coast guard vessel provocatively rammed and forced free a Chinese fishing boat that was being towed back to the Natuna Islands by the MMAF. Soon after that, Indonesian navy ships were dispatched by the government to patrol the Natuna Islands, to put up stronger deterrent against China’s incursions.

Another incident in May was a serious confrontation between the Indonesian navy and Chinese fishing vessels near the Natuna Islands. But it worked for Indonesia, which must have felt vindicated in stepping up its use of force. China’s coast guard were present, but now, it did not interfere when the Indonesian navy arrested a Chinese fishing boat and towed it towards Indonesian territory.