Indonesia-Vietnam ties are at an all-time high, but overlapping economic zones threatens the peace between the 2 ASEAN nations
By Oliver Ward
Indonesian-Vietnamese relations are under duress after an Indonesian naval vessel opened fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat. Two fishermen were wounded in the bloody encounter. Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister has put pressure on the Indonesian Foreign Ministry to investigate the incident and clarify what happened. The Indonesian Navy denies firing on the fishing vessel, insisting they only let off a “warning shot”.
The incident is a hiccup in an otherwise strengthening bilateral relationship between the two countries. But the issue of competing for territory claims in the South China Sea has led to the periodic occurrence incidents like these, which threatens to unravel the whole relationship.
Attacks on fishing vessels is a genuine source of friction
To combat this plunder of Indonesian resources, Jokowi publicly pursued a strategy of sinking foreign vessels operating within Indonesian claimed waters. In 2015, around the time of Indonesia’s Independence Day celebrations, the navy sank 34 foreign ships which had entered their territorial waters in an extreme display of force and aggression. In May 2017, another skirmish occurred when the Indonesian Navy detained five Vietnamese fishing boats operating around the Natuna Islands. The Vietnamese coast guard attempted to free them forcibly and the situation escalated into a diplomatic incident between the two nations.
These incidents undermine the strengthening of relations between the two countries
Vietnamese-Indonesian relations have entered a new period of collaboration. The current Vietnam-Indonesia Strategic Partnership was designed to enhance economic relations throughout the 2014-2018 period and reach a target of US$10 billion of two-way trade by 2018. This would be a huge increase from the trade turnover of US$5.4 billion in 2014 when the initiative began.
To achieve this goal, the Vietnamese government is committed to offering Indonesian firms favourable investment terms in the country. This has attracted interest from Indonesian companies like Jababeka, a publicly listed industrial real estate developer, who are considering a move to invest in the Dong Nam Economic Zone.
During Deputy Prime Minister, Vuong Dinh Hue’s recent visit to Indonesia in July, he promoted the importance of Vietnam’s regional economic connectivity. He specifically mentioned the importance of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, of which both Vietnam and Indonesia are a part of. Hue also reinforced Vietnamese and Indonesian collaboration on common viewpoint initiatives like sustainability, natural disaster response, water management and food security.
Markedly absent from Hue’s list of cooperation was maritime and fishery issues. As the economic relationship between the two nations becomes stronger, the lack of cooperation over these prominent issues is even more glaring. High-profile skirmishes continue to break out periodically between the two countries. Both Vietnam and Indonesia are reaching a critical juncture, where the subject needs to be tabled and resolved.
Both countries need assurances
Vietnamese parties have approached the issue in several bilateral interactions. In 2014, Nguyen Xuan Thuy, the Vietnamese Ambassador to Indonesia, met with the Indonesian Maritime and Fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti. He promised to better educate Hanoi’s fisherman on fishery laws to avoid illegal fishing scenarios in the future, but it seems to have had little effect.
Then in 2015, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung expressed his wish to Indonesian Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, for the Indonesian Navy to treat Vietnamese fishing fleets with “a spirit of traditional friendship and strategic partnership”.
There have been moments where it seemed like the Vietnamese appeals for compassion have been heard. Earlier this year the Indonesian Foreign Ministry returned 695 Vietnamese fishermen to Vietnam unharmed, but the latest incident shows there is still much to do.
Both countries want assurances from the other. Indonesia wants the assurance that Vietnamese fishermen will stop illegally exploiting Indonesian resources, while Vietnam wants the assurance that if Vietnamese fishermen do stray into Indonesian waters, they will not be harmed.
The only solution is further collaboration on these issues
With stronger economic ties and investment links, now the most urgent negotiation that needs to take place is the demarcation of overlapping economic zones in the South China Sea. Firm marine borders must be agreed to provide clear guides to fishermen on where they can and cannot fish. This is the only way to preventing further casualties.
However, there are signs of progress. Last April, the issue was tabled during a meeting between Indonesian and Vietnamese delegates in Yogyakarta. Also, during Hue’s recent July visit to Indonesia, he met with Indonesian Vice President, M. Jusuf Kalla to discuss maritime affairs.
However, progress has been painfully slow. After these meetings, the two nations are no closer to establishing demarcation over the economic territories. Hue and Kalla discussed the organisation of joint maritime patrols, but without firmly established borders skirmishes will likely be unavoidable. Another meeting is planned for Hanoi in August to discuss the issue further.
As progress grinds forward, it is the fishermen who are losing out. Uncertainty surrounding each country’s designated fishing territories is putting local Vietnamese fishermen at risk of taking a bullet for straying into Indonesian waters. Now is the time to show how far Vietnamese and Indonesian relations have come, not by building more mutually beneficial economic ties, but by grappling with sensitive issues and coming to an arrangement which promotes peace and stability in the region.