Indonesia risks creating internal rifts among South China Sea fishermen in its efforts to ward off China

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Following Chinese incursion in Indonesian waters, the government is sending fishermen from Java to help defend the area.

Editorial

In late December, Chinese fishing boats and coastguard vessels were reported to be illegally operating in the Natuna waters, part of Indonesia’s claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Chinese assert that the territory falls under its “Nine-Dash-Line,” and therefore, their vessels have the right to fish in the area.

China has long claimed much of the South China Sea, with rich fishing grounds and oil and natural gas reserves, under historical territorial rights. ASEAN’s claimants assert that Beijing’s claims have no legal basis and are illegal under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS).

Following the Chinese incursion, Indonesia plans to send around 120 fishing vessels to the Natuna Islands to strengthen its territorial claims.

Natuna fishermen are not in the same boat as the government

Local Natuna fishermen have rejected the government’s plan to send more fishermen from other areas of the country.

Fishermen from Java with better-equipped boats and more modern fishing equipment have the commercial advantage. Natuna fishermen fear being entirely squeezed out of their local market and waters.

Local fishermen also fear that the larger vessels and their fishing methods will cause lasting damage to the ecosystem.  Java fishers use trawlers, which are known to cause harm to the marine environment by damaging seafloors, coral reefs, and catching juvenile fish, which can lead to overfishing.

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

Natuna also lacks the facilities to process catches, which has resulted in catches being taken to Java. According to Roberto from the Indonesian Fisheries Corporation (Perindo), bigger boats that have the license to operate in Natuna waters, don’t land their catches in Natuna. The government should take a tough stand and make a deal with Javanese fishermen to land their catch and process it in Natuna.

22 boats from Pantura, north of Java, are set to sail to Natuna, just waiting for the go-ahead from the minister of fisheries.

Sending Javanese Fishing vessels to Natuna could create friction

Causing a rift between the Javanese and Natuna fishermen will be counterproductive. An internal conflict would do little to deter Chinese incursion and will hamper efficiency in exploiting resources in Indonesia’s EEZ.

According to Achmad Santosa, the CEO of Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, a better way to approach the issue would be to focus on developing the capacity of local Natuna fishermen. Most Natuna fishers have boats in the size of 5 gross tonnage (GT).  These smaller ships are prohibited from going too far out to sea by larger waves.

Marzuki, a local fisherman from Batu Gajah village, Kurniawan Sindro Utomo, confirmed that local fishermen are willing and able to sail all the way to the EEZ, but only with bigger boats and the right technology.  He said: “If the government wants to help us maintain sovereignty in the North Natuna Sea, then help us with bigger boats and procure communication devices or radios  that will allow us to travel farther away to the EEZ regions.”

Can fishing vessels alone protect Indonesian sovereignty?

Sending more fishing vessels to the contested waters maintains a presence in the territory but will not be effective if the fishers cannot operate effectively and safely.

Natuna fishermen have previously expressed their concerns over the lack of security and support from the government. The regent of Natuna, Hamid Rizal complained that one local fishing vessel was forced to cease operations and turn back by a foreign coast guard ship. Without governmental support, they cannot stand up to foreign authorities.

While Chinese vessels are reported to have left the area, they will likely return to further test the limits of Indonesian sovereignty.  

As a prevention step, the government must focus on upgrading military capabilities in the Natuna region and maintain a constant presence. Maritime patrols and surveillance teams would allow the authorities to respond quickly to threats and aggression towards Indonesian fishermen.

Beyond its military preparations, the government must work with local fishermen to avoid triggering conflict between Natuna and Javanese fishing outlets. It will need both groups to exert sovereignty over Indonesian waters, but without unity and the full support of the government efforts to uphold Indonesian claims will lack the impetus to deter Chinese encroachments.