Provoked by China, Jakarta Backs Away From South China Sea Dispute

If Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to be taken as seriously as he claims in defending Indonesian sea rights as an archipelagic nation, he may need a foreign minister from a culture less accommodating than that in his Foreign Ministry.

The incident took place over the weekend when an Indonesian special task force vessel took command of a fleeing Chinese fishing vessel called the Kway Fey that officials said had intruded into Indonesian waters. Three Indonesian officials went aboard and arrested eight crewmen and the captain. The task force vessel was towing the Kway Fey back to an Indonesian base when a Chinese Coastguard ship caught up and rammed the fishing boat back into international waters to keep it out of Indonesian hands.

Although the infuriated Indonesians summoned the Chinese ambassador to the Foreign Ministry over the incident, the Chinese continued to insist the fishing boat was in traditional Chinese fishing grounds. Foreign Minister Ratno Marsudi, while acknowledging the incursion, refused to say the incident was related to China’s ambitions to claim almost all of the South China Sea as its territorial waters.

Jokowi has ordered at least 150 fishing boats caught in Indonesian waters to be confiscated and blown up as graphic warning not to violate the country’s sovereignty, with spectacular results. Indonesian authorities on March 16 blew up the Viking, the last major ship wanted internationally for years of illegally taking toothfish from southern waters, and arresting its crew.

But hitherto, Jokowi’s policy of force to capture and destroy fishing vessels illegally fishing in its waters has mostly only applied to Vietnamese and other non-Chinese. So at least a line has been drawn with Beijing.

Indonesia also appeared to want to go public with the issues rather than accede to Chinese requests to keep it quiet and pretend all was well in their relations, as it did when it confiscated an earlier Chinese fishing craft, which was blown up last May along with 40 others from Vietnam and Thailand. That’s a policy of retreat which has long suited Jakarta.

But Indonesia would have done better to use stronger words and impose sanctions for what was not just the misdeeds of a few fishing boats but involved a large Chinese Coastguard vessel which comes under the direct authority of the military command responsible for the South China Sea. This so-called coast guard has no respect for Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone off the Natuna islands, otherwise it would not have been in those waters and 2.500 kilometers from China’s own Hainan island coast. This was an intended act of “grab territory” as clear as last year’s invasion of the Scarborough (Panatag) shoal off the Philippine coast. Chinese fishing boats have no rights being anywhere near the Natunas. The adjacent EEZs belong to Vietnam and Malaysia.

While China may acknowledge that the Natuna islands are Indonesian, it clearly claims through its maps and now actions on most of the sea to the northeast of the islands. This also happens to be the site of the rich but yet-to-be developed East Natuna gas field. The Natuna islands are vital but vulnerable, spread out over 260,000 square kilometers of territory with only 20 of 154 inhabited. Gas wealth is colossal but costs are very high so development has yet to commence.

Under these circumstances, it is absurd for Foreign Minister Ratno to continue to state that Indonesia is not a party to the dispute, which involves China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines over the so-called South China Sea. How can it not be, given China’s maps and actions?

Jakarta’s head may not be as deeply in the sand as in the past when it professed to be friends with everyone and to claim some sort of role as a neutral intermediary in regional disputes. Nonetheless, the supposed power of Chinese money for infrastructure projects, and the influence of local Chinese tycoons whose national loyalties are in practice divided, has muted its response to overt challenges.

Jokowi said in Japan last year that Indonesia rejects China’s nine-dash line claim. Yet at the same time he has welcomed the Maritime Silk Road aspect of the One Belt One Road policy, even though that clearly has strategic as well as commercial goals for China. Though OBOR, as it is known, may sound innocent enough, Indonesians would do well to remember their history – the failed invasion of Java by Yuan dynasty emperor Kublai in 1293, and the demands for tribute backed by his massive naval force from imperial envoy Zheng He’s during his 15th century voyages around the region.

In short, defending Indonesian territory is a job for the Defense Ministry not the elegant wordsmiths of the Foreign Ministry.