Indonesia has confirmed that on Sunday its navy fired warning shots at several Chinese vessels accused of fishing illegally near their northern Natuna Islands. This marks the third maritime confrontation that has occurred between Indonesia and China this year and demonstrates escalating tensions over sea and land rights within the region. Whilst Jakarta has previously downplayed the events to avoid fuelling conflict with China, local fishermen have become increasingly vocal by calling on the Indonesian government to intervene and protect their waters.
Earlier this year, two major fishing incidents between Indonesia and China incited protest from Beijing over the detainment of Chinese crew members who, according to Indonesian coast guards, were illegally fishing within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In March, a Chinese patrol boat tried to intervene when the Indonesian navy towed away a Chinese fishing vessel that had been found in the area. The second event in May involved an Indonesian navy boat firing warning shots when a second Chinese boat attempted to evade their pursuit. Indonesian authorities have detained the 8-member crew in Natuna’s capital Ranai, despite strong objections from Beijing.
As part of wider claims in the South China Sea, China has sought to enforce its “nine-dash line,” which is the huge u-shaped area that reaches well past the southern tip of Vietnam, including the seas west of the Philippines and the northern waters off the coast of Indonesia. China claims the seas around the Natuna Islands form part of their traditional and historical fishing grounds. However, China’s territorial assertiveness has been met with strong opposition from its regional neighbours such as, Vietnam and the Philippines, who refute China’s claims of territorial sovereignty, particularly over the resource-rich Paracel and Spratly islands. Jakarta, however, has been cautious to enter the dispute, wary of losing its valuable US$44 billion economic partnership with Beijing.
Whilst Jakarta has distanced itself from a political position on the issue, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea is now affecting local Natuna fishermen. These fishermen have become increasingly vocal about the need for the Indonesian government to protect their seas against foreign threats. High-tech Chinese vessels encroaching into their traditional fishing grounds threaten the livelihoods of local fishermen who cannot compete for a catch using their traditional small-scale fishing methods. As a consequence, heads of local fishing villages have called for solutions to ensure their communities and livelihoods are protected.
The ABC reporters recently travelled to the Natunas and met with local fishermen who expressed their concern over the developments. Idris, who has worked for years in the Natuna area, employs traditional fishing methods and refuses to use large nets or trawl the sea bed for risk of damaging fish stocks. He refuses to refer to the waters as part of the South China Sea and demands the Indonesian government to stand up to China over their fishing rights.
“Well, on a map it says South China Sea but I don’t know that,” he told the ABC.
“For me I only know this as the Natuna Sea. We go fishing here because it is our waters. We don’t know what the South China Sea is.”
The Natuna Islands are scattered across 100,000 square miles of ocean to the north of the Indonesian mainland. The islands are surrounded by waters that are rich in energy resources and fishing grounds. They are home to one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves and are an immediate security concern for Indonesia. 3,000 km away, Beijing has never claimed the islands as part of its official “nine-dash line” territorial claim, however, the foreign ministry has commented that there are “overlapping claims” in the surrounding seas.
Whilst Chinese vessels continue to venture further south, Indonesia’s position is still uncertain. Indonesia must play a careful balancing game by making efforts to protect both their territorial waters and EEZ, and to prevent escalating a territorial dispute with China. In light of a third naval confrontation, the question remains as to whether Jakarta will continue to play it safe and reject any form of provocation or direct confrontation with China over the South China Sea, or will they take a stronger position, to fight for the rights of local fishermen?
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