The news that Indonesian authorities captured three Vietnamese fishing boats in Indonesian waters last week and later sank them puts new teeth into President Joko Widodo’ s vow, enunciated at his Inaugural address and again in mid-November, that he intends to make his nation into a regional maritime power.
On Dec.5, officials sank the three Vietnamese vessels captured for fishing illegally in Indonesia’s waters, which some observers have construed as a message to China, which has made unprecedented intrusions into Indonesian waters around the Natuna Islands and which yesterday reiterated its right to South China Sea areas also claimed by the Philippines.
Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno told reporters that they intended to demonstrate “stern government action” against illegal fishing. Another five Thai vessels have been held since No. 2 after being captured near West Kalimantan and, authorities said, they would also be sent to the bottom.. More than 150 small craft are also in Indonesian custody.
The new president has complained that Indonesia loses as much as Rp300 trillion (US$24.2 billion) annually from illegal fishing and currently as many as 5,400 ships operate illegally in territorial waters because the government has taken little action to stop them. That isn’t quite true. In the five years between 2007 and 2012, authorities confiscated and sank 33 of 38 illegal fishing craft, the majority from Vietnam, in waters near the Natuna Islands. It has also conducted territorial standoffs with Malaysian naval vessels.
In major speeches in China and Myanmar, Jokowi, as he prefers to be known, unveiled a major diplomatic agenda outlining what he called a “maritime axis” and serving notice that Indonesia would raise its profile in the South China Sea. He first alluded to plans to turn his country into a maritime nation during his five-year term of office in his inaugural address in October.
He expanded on that message on Nov.13 at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar when he said the sea will have an increasingly important role in Indonesia’s future. In short, he said Indonesia intends to become a force between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In a brief five-minute address, Jokowi said Indonesia must protect its own archipelago of 18,200 islands, only 8,800 of them even named, in a sea of 8.8 million sq.km.
His Maritime Axis doctrine, he said, rests on five pillars that include ensuring regional security as well as safeguarding navigational safety and maritime security, a regional role that the US has played since World War II. One of those pillars, he said, is “maintaining and managing its sea resources and establishing sovereignty over sea-based food products, which currently are poached almost with impunity by international fishing interests.”
The question is what happens when this muscular new maritime policy runs up against China’s own maritime aims, let alone the hundreds of ships plying Indonesian waters from Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. According to a Spring, 2014 article in Washington Monthly by Alan Dupont and Christopher G. Baker, “Chinese fishing boats are also appearing in unprecedented numbers around Indonesia’s Natuna Island group,” nearly 2,000 km from the Chinese mainland, illustrating how far south the Chinese fleet is now sailing and the extent of its fishing and territorial claims.
The Indonesian Navy has detained Chinese fishermen in the past for illegally fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, which provoked a “typically blunt demand from Beijing for their immediate return.” The Chinese response raised fears in Jakarta that China’s expansive claim to the South China Sea might cut across the northern edge of the Natunas’ EEZ, even though Indonesia is not a claimant to any of the disputed features in the Spratly Island chain, the authors wrote.
A more dramatic example of what China might do is contained in the same article, describing a 2012 incident in which a Philippine maritime surveillance plane discovered eight Chinese vessels at anchor within its waters at the Scarborough Shoals. A ship, the Gregorio del Pilar, was dispatched to inspect the vessels and discovered a large amount of coral, giant clams, and shark among their catch, which the Philippines condemned as illegal.
The Chinese counter-claimed that their fishing vessels were sheltering from a storm when the Philippine navy started harassing them, Dupont and Baker wrote. As the Gregorio del Pilar attempted to arrest the fishermen, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships showed up to defend the fishing vessels, preventing arrests.
In a bid to defuse the situation, a small Philippine coast guard search-and-rescue craft replaced the Gregorio del Pilar— only to have China send one of a new class of armed fisheries patrol and law enforcement ships, the 2,589-tonne Yuzheng 310 and pushing the Philippine craft out. Despite that, China intensified its patrols, sending a clear message that it would not withdraw its claim to the shoal and its adjacent fishing grounds.
Jokowi, in his earlier speeches, has indicated he would shift defense spending from the army to the navy. It is uncertain what challenges Jokowi will face in turning his vision into reality. The Army continues to receive the bulk of a defense budget that amounts to about only about 1 percent of GDP. While the country has the largest navy in Southeast Asia, it is only slightly larger than that of Thailand, with two operational submarines and three under construction, six frigates and two under construction, 10 corvettes, 55 aircraft, 21 missile-carriers, 12 minesweepers and assorted other craft. It will be interesting to see if he dares a confrontation with a much larger and more modern Chinese military fleet as well as its huge fishing fleet in the Natunas over fishing rights.