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The Indonesian Navy blows up a foreign fishing boat off Batam Island on 22 February 2016 as part of its campaign to battle illegal fishing in its territorial waters. Courtesy of M Urip/AP/Press Association Images.

Indonesia and the South China Sea

John McBeth
Newsbrief, 24 May 2016
China, Global Security Issues, Maritime Forces, Pacific
Will Indonesia’s aspirations to become a regional maritime power set it on a collision course with China?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is caught in a cleft stick. He is anxious to secure Chinese financing for his much-needed infrastructure programme, but must now contend with a blatant challenge from Beijing in his efforts to enforce sovereignty over Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

On 20 March two China Coast Guard vessels seized back a Chinese trawler, the Kway Fey, that had been detained inside Indonesia’s 12-nautical mile (nm) territorial limit. While it is one thing to intrude into Indonesia’s EEZ, which stretches out some 200 nm from the coast and safeguards the country’s rights below the water’s surface, it is quite another to penetrate its territorial waters, over which the country claims full sovereignty.

More importantly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s subsequent claim that the two Chinese vessels were in ‘traditional Chinese fishing grounds’ brings a troubling new dimension to a sovereignty issue that has so far focused mostly on the disputed Spratly Islands.

The prospect of further, similar encounters presents the still-fledgling president with a major dilemma. Relatively inexperienced in foreign policy issues anyway, he is relying on the Chinese to fund many of his signature projects, including the long-awaited 140-km, $5.5 billion Jakarta–Bandung fast-rail venture.

Indonesian analysts say that as important as building new infrastructure may be to the country’s stuttering economy, President Widodo should not be held hostage over an issue that affects national sovereignty – if only because of the criticism this would expose him to from nationalist politicians, who have traditionally had a strong influence on how governments approach foreign relations.

What makes it all the more problematic is that by being drawn into taking sides, the Indonesian government may risk inflaming ethnic tensions at home and lose its ability to lead a regional response to China’s disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei over the ownership of the Spratlys.

Chinese Indonesians make up only 5–6% of the total population, but their businesspeople have a disproportionate hold on the national economy, something that often causes resentment among ethnic Indonesians and has led in the past to violent social unrest, as it did during the riots in 1998 that precipitated the fall of President Suharto. Scores of ethnic Chinese were killed and many others raped in those two days of mayhem.

The Kway Fey incident also threatens to undermine President Widodo’s aspiration to transform Indonesia into a maritime power. This was a key 2014 campaign promise stemming from his desire to improve inter-island connectivity and secure tighter control over the nation’s 4 million km2 of archipelagic sea.

As part of that policy, the government launched a major crackdown on illegal foreign fishing boats, which has had a major impact on the cosy joint ventures between rent-seeking Indonesian businesspeople and foreign fishing companies. 

Widodo’s policy always had the potential to run into problems in the stretch of the South China Sea north of the gas-rich Natuna Islands – the scene of the Kway Fey incident – where Indonesia’s 200-nm EEZ appears to overlap with China’s line of ‘historic’ maritime sovereignty, referred to as ‘the nine-dash line’.

The tongue-shaped line was first published by China’s former Kuomintang regime in late 1947 and was subsequently reaffirmed by Premier Zhou Enlai after the communist takeover. But Beijing has always refused to provide the line’s co-ordinates.

Last November, Chinese officials conceded during a meeting with Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi that Jakarta had full sovereignty over the Natunas and, by legal extension, over the EEZ stretching out from the Natuna archipelago, with its 272 islands.

Yet, worryingly for the Widodo government, the ambiguity that prevails over the nine-dash line means China may have been paying only lip service to Indonesia’s legal claims at the November meeting.

Indonesia’s deputy co-ordinating minister of maritime affairs and resources, Arif Havas Oegroseno, told this author that he believes the nine-dash line, apparently extending 300 nms south of China’s Hainan Island, ends somewhere before the point where Indonesia’s continental shelf intersects with that of Vietnam and Malaysia.

The Kway Fey was intercepted over 420 nm south of this point, yet only 68 nm northeast of North Natuna, Indonesia’s northernmost island. By claiming the interception took place in traditional Chinese fishing grounds, Beijing has introduced a new dynamic to the territorial waters question. As Havas put it: ‘This is a new game’.

Neither traditional fishing rights nor the unilateral nine-dash line have any legal basis under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China is a signatory. But that does not appear to worry Beijing, nor does the reputation it is gaining in Indonesia as a backyard bully.

A Chinese delegate made it clear in a speech to a conference in Beijing last year, and later in a conversation with an Australian journalist, that the nine-dash line constituted the country’s self-declared maritime boundary. The message was patently clear: get used to it.

‘They didn’t give co-ordinates but simply referred to their claimed territory as sovereign Chinese domain which had been recognised as such for centuries and re-affirmed by the post-1945 peace settlement and international boundary decisions’, the journalist told this author. ‘UNCLOS didn’t enter the discussion’. 

Indeed, some analysts suggest that Beijing seems to be making it up as it goes along. Indonesia’s foremost authority on maritime affairs, former Ambassador Hasjim Djalal, who spent years trying to get clarity on the nine-dash line, says he was told at one point that China only claimed natural features inside the line (such as the Spratly Islands), not the more than 3 million km2 of sea contained within it. 

Like Havas, Djalal says the issue of traditional fishing grounds is something which has never been raised in the many discussions he has had with Chinese officials. His conclusion: ‘They are only trying to confuse us’.

‘The Chinese always have a long-term global view and they see the lake to the south as a necessary part of that’, said another senior Indonesian diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous. ‘We’re clear about our 200 mile economic zone, but for them the Law of the Sea isn’t their only document of reference. It’s anything that serves their interest’.

The Kway Fey incident began on the afternoon of 19 March, when an Indonesian patrol boat detained the 300-ton Chinese trawler and its eight crew members while they were using what the Indonesians alleged were illegal trawl nets. Eleven hours later, as the two vessels neared Natuna Besar, the biggest island to the south, a China Coast Guard ship appeared out of the early morning darkness and rammed the trawler in an effort to disable it. 

Shortly after, a more heavily armed Chinese patrol craft arrived and gave the Indonesians 30 minutes to release the fishing boat, though it did not seek the return of the crewmen, who have remained in Indonesian custody.

This was not the first time there has been a stand-off, an ominous sign that when push comes to shove China is willing to use direct threats of violence to enforce its claimed boundary and fishing rights.

More to the point, in this particular case the two Chinese patrol craft used force despite being inside Indonesia’s 12-nm territorial waters, an action that Jakarta can hardly ignore, despite President Widodo’s obvious reluctance to criticise China.

At least three similar incidents occurred during the presidency of Widodo’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The so-called ‘foreign policy president’, Yudhoyono sought to maintain a balance between the US and China and played down the incidents, leaving them to go largely unreported.

In two of those encounters, in May and June 2010, China Coast Guard ships trained their armaments on Indonesian patrol craft, forcing them to release two Chinese fishing boats caught intruding in Indonesian waters.

In March 2013, Indonesian fisheries protection officers boarded a third Chinese fishing boat and detained its nine-man crew. But again they were compelled to free the men after intervention by another armed Chinese escort that jammed their communications and sounded its sirens.

Chinese officials simply shrug their shoulders when asked about the coast guard’s multiple functions of law enforcement, fisheries protection and coastal security, all of which fall outside the purview of the Ministry of National Defense or the People’s Liberation Army.

Formerly part of the Ministry of Public Security and now operating under the newly created State Oceanic Administration, the China Coast Guard’s eighty 1,000–4,000-ton cutters – some armed with 100-mm cannons – dwarf Indonesia’s tiny fisheries protection fleet.

Since late 2014, Indonesia’s fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, has overseen the scuttling of 155 foreign fishing boats caught poaching in Indonesian territory. But only one of those boats was Chinese, and that had been seized in 2009.

Soon after the crackdown began, the Chinese embassy delivered a letter to the minister’s home warning of serious consequences if she went ahead and sank a 4,300-ton Chinese mothership – used to store a trawler fleet’s catch – and five fishing boats that had been detained in the Arafura Sea, south of Indonesia’s Papua province.

 To the minister’s consternation, the boats were subsequently released, apparently because Widodo was not prepared to endanger relations with China when so much was at stake in getting his infrastructure programme off the ground.

With the foreign ministry actively pursuing a policy aimed at enhancing ASEAN’s role as a burgeoning – though hardly unified – regional community, the Indonesian armed forces, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), has had surprisingly little to say about the incidents, given that its main mission is external defence.

In its still-to-be-released 2014 defence white paper, put together towards the end of the Yudhoyono presidency, the TNI acknowledges the possibility of Indonesia being affected if tensions in the South China Sea erupt into conflict.

But while the strategy paper is now being revised to reflect Widodo’s maritime vision, the military continues to focus most of its attention on international terrorism, transnational crime and illegal immigration.

More recently, these issues have been incorporated into a newly developed conspiracy theory, with TNI Commander General Gatot Nurmantyo talking up the danger of unnamed foreign states using domestic proxies to weaken Indonesia from within and rob it of its resources.

It is unclear what evidence exists to support this idea, but it does allow the military to conveniently fuse international and domestic issues and to suggest that in order to deal with external threats, it needs to regain some of the internal security role it lost to the police in 1999 as Indonesia moved to democratic rule.

According to General (Rtd) Agus Widjojo, a fellow at Jakarta’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, ‘The military isn’t really involved in strategic thinking at all, so it leaves that to the Foreign Ministry. It sees most threats as coming from within’.

International strategists find this baffling given the events unfolding in the South China Sea and the fact that the TNI is responsible for protecting an archipelago, with four key chokepoints, lying astride some of the world’s most important trading routes.

Even the co-ordinating ministry for political, legal and security affairs is more preoccupied with day-to-day domestic events than with providing strategic guidance on what the region might look like in 20 years and how the military should position itself.

That may be about to change. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu recently announced plans to beef up Indonesia’s northern defences. These plans are expected to assume far greater urgency now that China appears to be reinforcing its sovereignty claims beyond the Spratly Islands.

President Widodo has described illegal fishing as a ‘criminal issue’, saying it has nothing to do with neighbourly relations. But that shows a worrying naivety about China’s pursuit of a strategy the Lowy Institute’s Alan Dupont calls ‘fish, protect, contest and occupy’.

Sooner or later, Jakarta may have to face up to what is clearly a new reality in the geopolitics of the South China Sea.

John McBeth is a Jakarta-based journalist who has lived and worked in Asia for 44 years.

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