China’s Fishing Vessels in the Natuna Island: Implications for the Regional Security
Dr Teshu Singh

Amid heightened tension in the South China Sea (SCS) over China’s land reclamation in the region, last month, fishing vessel MV Kwang Fey 10078 and a Chinese Coast Guard vessel were found fishing in the exclusive economic zone of Indonesia. This is becoming a regular feature in the region. The incident occurred about 4.3 kilometers off Indonesia’s energy rich Natuna Islands. Consequently, Indonesian patrol vessel detained the vessel along with eight crew member. The vessels were been taken for investigation. On the way, an armed Chinese Coast Guard ship collided with the towed ship and attempts were made to prevent from being taken to Indonesian hands. Soon, one more Chinese Coast Guard ship arrived and ordered the Indonesian vessel to release the ship within 30 minutes. The Indonesian Maritime Affairs and fisheries Minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, demanded “the Chinese government hand over of the Kway Fey to Indonesian authorities”. The Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, summoned the Chinese Ambassador for Indonesia and sent a note of protest to the Chinese government.

Commenting on the event, the spokesperson from China’s Foreign Ministry said that the Chinese fishermen were conducting “normal activities” in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” and also denied that “the coast guard vessel had ever crossed over into Indonesian water”. Notably, under UNCLOS there is no such concept as “traditional fishing ground”. Further clarifying Indonesian position on the China’s ‘traditional Chinese Fishing grounds’, Edy Yusuf, the Foreign Ministry director for East Asia and Pacific region said, “ traditional fishing rights must be agreed on by a treaty over a particular area, based on UNCLOS. Indonesia and China do not have such a treaty”.

This is not the first time that such an incident has happened. In 2013 and 2010 similar incident had happened near the Natuna Islands. In March 26, 2013, armed Chinese vessels confronted an Indonesian fisheries patrol boat and demanded the release of Chinese fishermen who had been detained in the Natuna waters. After this event, Indonesian military started developing its base in the Natuna Island. Similarly, in 2010, a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel forced an Indonesian patrol boat to release another illegal Chinese trawler. But unlike these two incidents, this time (2016) Indonesia has been quite vocal this.

There already exists a territorial dispute in the region between China and five other claimants; Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Indonesia is not involved in this dispute except for the overlap portion within its EEZ that falls under the nine dash line. Indonesia does not claim any part of the Paracels or the Spratly Islands. It claims a 200 mile EEZ under the provision of UNCLOS in the SCS. Indonesia maintains its position as “non claimant” in the dispute. However, the Chinese claims in the SCS extend into Indonesia’s EEZ and continental shelf, including Indonesia’s Natuna gas field. The Chinese maps and passport indicate the Natuna Island as a part of the nine dash line. Until now both the countries have maintained calmness over this overlapping claim.

The China–Indonesia relations have been of inter-dependent. Indonesia in fact was the first Southeast Asian country to establish diplomatic relations with China as early as July 1950. But later, due to the issue of ethnic Chinese community providing support to the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia/PKI) the bilateral relations were frozen until 1990s.The Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s however provided China an opportunity to strengthen its relations with Indonesia. In August 1998 China agreed to sell 50,000 tons of rice to Indonesia, provided a $3 million grant for medicine, $200 million economic loan package to Indonesia and participated in the IMF rescue plan. China also helped Indonesia during the 2004 Tsunami disaster. In 2005, a Strategic Partnership agreement was signed between both the countries. Since then, the trade volume between the two countries has grown by 25 per cent from US$42.7 billion in 2010 and target of US $ 80 billion was set by 2014. In April 2015, President Jokowi said, “Chinese companies will be involved in 24 ports, 15 airports, 1,000 kilometers of road projects and 8,700 kilometers of railway projects and other infrastructure projects”. In September 2015 Indonesia gave China a multi-billion dollar contract to construct the Jakarta –Bandung high-speed railway projects.

Indonesia thus remains strategically very important for China. At the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bali on October 2, 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed the revival of the ancient “maritime silk road” (MSR). Amongst all the South East Asian countries choosing Indonesia to announce MSR exemplifies the importance of the country in Chinese foreign policy.

So why is China indulging in brinkmanship on the Natuna dispute?

Background to the Natuna Dispute

The Natuna gas fields are of immense importance for Indonesia as they form the northernmost undisputed boundary of Indonesia. It is situated in the greater Sarawak Basin and about 1,100 km north of Jakarta and 225 km northeast of the Natuna Islands. The Natuna transportation system is one of the world’s longest subsea gas pipelines and there are significant amount of untapped gas deposits at the offshore Natuna gas fields. It forms a vital sea lane of communication for trade in the SCS.

In 1993, China’s foreign minister verbally reassured his counterpart that Natuna was not claimed by China. However in November 2015, China issued its first public statement on the Natuna Island. The Chinese Foreign ministry said that “Indonesia has no claim to Chinese Spratly Island. Chinese side has no objection to Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna Islands”.

Indonesia has declared itself as a “non-claimant” in the dispute and has been active in various informal Workshops on “Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea” since 1990. Until now, Indonesia has tried to be “honest broker” in management of the dispute. With the reference to the ADIZ in the SCS Indonesian Foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa in 2014, has already said that ‘we have firmly told China we will not accept a similar zone if it is adopted in the South China Sea’.

Given the frequency of such event, Indonesia may stand against the Chinese assertive behaviour in the region. These islands and the overlapping waters are becoming a new cause of tension in the dispute. With the evolving geopolitics of the region, Indonesia has started building its naval and military power around surrounding waters of Natuna. Indonesia, has also taken the lead in starting the Komodo Multilateral joint exercise. This naval exercise is essentially a joint exercise with ASEAN and ASEAN plus countries for participation of their navies. The first exercise was held in 2014, Batam and the second took place on April 12, 2016, in Padang, Indonesia. Navies of 35 nation participated in this exercise.

Implications for Regional Security

Overall, Chinese approach to the entire SCS dispute has been to maintain ambiguity and adhere to “salami tactics” (step by step approach) thereby reminding other claimants that its presence is indispensable.

China wants to solve the issue on a bilateral level but the claimants from the region want a multilateral solution. This has involved external powers like the US in the region. Notably, one of the main reasons behind Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ is to ensure freedom of navigation in the SCS. The recent visit of the US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter to India and subsequently to the Philippines can also be seen in these lights. He toured the flight deck of the USS John C. Steinnis (Nuclear powered super carrier) in the SCS.

The Philippines has submitted a petition before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal against Chinese aggressive action. The jury is awaited next months; China is likely not to accept it. Before the verdict comes China is trying to be more proactive in the region. Seemingly, If China completes its infrastructural developments (artificial islands) in the SCS there will be more frequent incidents like this. China will patrol the region more often against the will of the other claimant countries. Consequently, there is in all likelihood be frequent stand-offs that will involve external powers.

Published Date: 29th April 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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