BOOM! Indonesia Blows Up 41 Foreign Fishing Boats

Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s order to blow up 41 illegal foreign fishing vessels this week pretty much redraws the country’s boundaries as far as illegal fishing is concerned, and serves notice to the region that he means business.

The boats were sent to the bottom on Thursday, May 21, and included five from Vietnam, two from Thailand, 11 from the Philippines and one from China. The destruction of a Chinese vessel sends a particular message to Beijing, which has been swinging its weight around the South China Sea, enlarging specks of rock into artificial islands in territory claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam and thumbing its nose at critics, countries and international agencies.

China apparently also has decided to ignore a major conference in Singapore at the end of the month on overlapping territorial claims among China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan despite the fact that nations far outside the region as well as the European Union will be there to voice their concerns and join the dialogue.

Indonesia is only peripherally involved in the South China Sea dispute through a portion of China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which runs through Indonesia’s Natuna region. But under Jokowi, the country’s historically cautious foreign policy is becoming more assertive and nationalistic. In March, the president roiled the waves during a visit to Japan by telling a newspaper interviewer that China had no legal claim to the Sea.

“The ‘nine-dashed line’ that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law,” Jokowi said in the interview. The statement shocked his own advisors back home, who fear losing access to Chinese investment. He later appeared to back off slightly, saying that Jakarta won’t side with any country in the continuing dispute.

Nationalist rising

The mass boat sinking is in line with other actions the country has taken that seem reckless to outsiders but cater to nationalist sentiment at a time when the president is politically weak. The execution of eight drug convicts last month – seven of them foreigners – by firing squad was widely denounced internationally but the president justified it as an act of national sovereignty.

The sinking of the Chinese vessel plainly shocked Beijing, which on Thursday issued a statement expressing "serious concern” and asking for details. The ship was seized six years ago and was one of several being held by Indonesia.

There may be more to come, with a much bigger ship in question. In late December, according to the environmental watchdog NGO Mongabay, officials seized a Panama-flagged Chinese-manned vessel on charges it lacked a permit to operate in the country and that it deliberately turned off its transmitters to evade government monitors. In the hold of the trawler, the 4,306 gross tonne MV Hai Fa, authorities confiscated 900 tonnes of fish and prawns, including 66 tonnes of hammerhead, whitetip and other shark species. Chinese ships have also been found with cargoes of land-based endangered species, raising fears of widespread smuggling, likely in connivance with the Indonesian police and military. There has been no disposition of that ship yet.

Maritime nation

Indonesia’s marine ecosystems, encompassing 81,000 square kilometers of territorial waters surrounding its 17,000-odd islands, are “under enormous pressure from changes in ocean temperature and human activities, including destructive fishing practices such as bombing, cyanide poisoning, and overfishing,” according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. For decades, as populations have grown along with the need for seafood, foreign fishermen have invaded Indonesian waters with impunity. That appears to be no longer the case, and Indonesia is thumbing its nose at its gigantic neighbor to the north.

Jokowi has been signaling his determination to take charge of Indonesian waters since his inauguration last October, when he proclaimed his intention to return Indonesia’s status as a maritime nation. The country is in quiet talks with the United States for advice on establishing a Coast Guard to put teeth to its new policies.

“We have been showing our backs too long to these seas, to these oceans, to these straits, and gulfs,” he said, appealing to the spirit of Jaleseva Jayamahe, a Sanskrit-derived phrase which roughly translates as “At sea we triumph” and is the motto of the Indonesian Navy, long the junior branch to the country’s land-based army.

Most Southeast Asian nations have dashed about neighboring waters with fishing boats for decades with little concern for maritime borders. Indonesia appears to be the first one to actually blow up somebody else’s boats. Last December, the Indonesian Navy blew up three Vietnamese vessels in the first of what has now totaled perhaps as many as 60 from Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. No Chinese vessels had been destroyed prior to this week due to legal challenges, an Indonesian government official told Reuters.

Chinese fishing boats have been growing increasingly aggressive, ranging far abroad in the quest for seafood. Greenpeace says Chinese companies have expanded operations in Africa from 13 vessels in 1985 to 462 vessels in 2013. Chinese fishing vessels have ranged into the arctic and to the western Pacific coasts of South America.

Not a ‘show of force’?

Wednesday’s fireworks were ordered by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry in coordination with the navy, fittingly to commemorate National Resurgence Day, the birthday of the country's first native political party.

"This was on the president's request," said fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, a popular and colorful entrepreneur who has built a fortune through her prawn export business. "We are serious about our oceanic resources becoming a source of success for our fishermen. This is impossible if the fish are already taken."

The mass sinkings were for infractions like using trawlers or fishing without proper documentation. In what Mongabay called “an act of ironic repurposing,” authorities used relatively weak explosives to scuttle the boats in order to maintain their shapes as underwater fish-aggregating devices, Asep Burhanuddin, the ministry's director-general of monitoring, said in a statement.

"The hope is that the sunken boats will act as new habitat for the fish in the area they were sunk in and therefore contribute to marine conservation," Asep said.

“This is not a show of force. This is just merely [us] enforcing our laws,” Susi was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Post.