China and Indonesia in maritime clash

A series of violent fisheries clashes with China is adding to domestic pressure on Indonesia’s government to take a tougher stance towards Beijing, with which it routinely claims to have no maritime disputes.

The Indonesian navy said it had fired warning shots on Friday at Chinese fishing boats operating in the Natuna Sea, in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, the third such confrontation reported this year.

The latest clash comes at a testing time for the region, with Southeast Asian nations deeply divided over how to respond to Beijing’s assertive approach. Tensions are set to rise further in the coming weeks, when an international court in The Hague is expected to rule on a case brought against China’s maritime claims by the Philippines.

Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s fisheries minister, said on Twitter that shots were fired “according to procedure” as the navy defended Indonesia’s sovereignty.

China’s foreign ministry said that one boat had been damaged and one sailor shot and injured during the altercation, which it said occurred in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”.

Beijing and Jakarta have tried to play down their maritime differences over the past two decades but the recent run of incidents and hardening rhetoric from China are undermining that stance.

China’s foreign ministry said the latest incident occurred in waters “where China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests”, suggesting its ambitions in the gas-rich Natuna Sea stretch beyond mere “fishing grounds”.

“This is the first time in a long time that China is openly declaring that there are overlapping maritime claims,” said Evan Laksmana, a foreign policy researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an influential think-tank in Jakarta. “If China is enforcing its maritime claims, it becomes harder for Indonesia to maintain its neutrality.”

China’s “nine-dash line” claim to almost the entire South China Sea cuts through Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Sea, although Beijing has accepted that Jakarta has sovereignty over the Natuna islands themselves.

Jakarta has long maintained that this does not amount to a territorial dispute because China has never formally clarified its nine-dash line claim under international law.

But the spike in fisheries clashes, which have occurred ever closer to Indonesia’s territorial waters, has angered some within the Indonesian government.

They are privately calling for President Joko Widodo to abandon the country’s neutrality on regional maritime disputes and lend more support to neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines, which have stood up to China more forcefully.

Natuna Sea map

“Quite a few people in the foreign ministry are worried that our neutral position is eroding our strategic capital in [the] region and our ability to be a leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” said Mr Laksmana.

But he added that “any fundamental shift would have to come directly from Mr Widodo”, who has largely side-stepped foreign policy to focus on boosting the economy and has shown a reluctance to upset China.

Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asia researcher at the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, said that while Chinese fishing boats and their coastguard escorts were encroaching deeper into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, it was not clear how far this was driven by strategic as opposed to commercial objectives.

“Chinese fishing fleets, whether directed by the state or not, are going further and further south because they have overfished the waters near Hainan,” he said. “It may also be strategically driven because Indonesia has stepped up fisheries enforcement in the Natuna Sea and China may want to send a message that it won’t be pushed around.”

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