Tensions Escalate Between Indonesia And China After Dispute In Maritime Sovereignty; Indonesia Mobilizes Fishermen

In an unforeseen escalation of tension between Indonesia and China regarding fishing rights off the South Asia coast, Indonesia is set to mobilize fishermen to join warships in the South China Sea to defend the waters from Chinese vessels, the Independent reports.

The discrepancy stems from the disillusioned and ambiguous ownership of maritime global trade routes—areas in the South China Sea to which China has claimed rights based on “historic activity”—which re notorious for their plentiful fishing grounds and energy reserves. Meanwhile, other Southeast Asian countries, the United States, and other world powers deny this claim as having no legal basis, the South China Morning Post reports.

Indonesian vessels and Chinese fishermen commonly confront one another within this ambiguous territory; however, tensions have escalated in mid-December due to the presence of a Chinese coastguard vessel that had even prompted the Indonesian government to call upon the Chinese ambassador, the South China Morning Post reports. According to Reuters, the last instance of such tension between Indonesia and China over the South China Sea was in 2016, when a Chinese coastguard vessel sought to free a Chinese fishing boat after its interception by Indonesian authorities for allegedly fishing illegally.

In a statement that has been described as “unusually strong,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo told reporters that “there is no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty.”

According to the Independent, Indonesia’s chief security minister Mahfud MD reported that 120 fishermen from the island of Java would be sent to the Natuna islands to “operate by fishing there and other things,” while the country is also increasing their warship presence in the area.

On Tuesday, Indonesia took these tensions a step further and deployed four fighter jets to the South China Sea in a bid for sovereignty and legitimacy within China’s alleged “exclusive economic zone.” According to the New York Times, Indonesia’s air force spokesman, Fajar Adriyanto, said that four F-16 jets had been conducting flights and “standard patrols” over the islands; the spokesman also expressed that there was little risk of violent confrontation with Beijing.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to the Indonesian deployment of fighter jets on Tuesday by stating that “both countries shoulder responsibility for maintaining regional peace and stability.” Despite this plea for peaceful reciprocity, China has also been involved in escalated tensions in disputed waters off of Vietnam’s continental shelf where China was awarded oil concessions, the New York Times reports.

Rights and claims to “ungovernable” oceanic trade routes have always been causing tension between two sovereign states who share specific routes of passage. It is each state’s responsibility to provide diplomacy and communication to maintain peace and reciprocity within neutral territory. The presence of militarized symbols such as coastguard vessels and fighter jets can be interpreted as symbolic—if not blatantly abrasive—forms of aggression. However, within a world system where the notion of national sovereignty has consumed national security and national agenda, and while maritime routes remain vital for trade and economic development, disputed waters will continue to cause discrepancies and can also lead to violence. It is important, then, to call upon diplomacy and professional communication between diplomats and public officials and to condemn micro-forms of aggression on both sides.

Ashley Lamoreaux