Wednesday, March 23, 2016

China’s Maritime Confrontation With Indonesia Is Not New

While details remain murky, Indonesian accounts suggest that a Chinese coast guard rammed one of the country's fishing boats, the Kway Fey 10078, to free it from Indonesian authorities after it had been seized for illegal fishing near the Natuna Islands. In response, Indonesia summoned Chinese embassy officials to express its discontent and vowed that the detained fishermen will be prosecuted under Indonesian law. Beijing, for its part, has demanded that Jakarta release the fishermen.

For close observers of Indonesian foreign policy, the incident is an escalation of ongoing tensions that have been simmering between the two sides, rather than an entirely new phenomenon. Indonesia, the world's largest archipelagic state, has long been miffed at illegal fishing by its Asian neighbors including China, a practice which it considers a violation of its sovereignty as well as a pilfering of its maritime resources (See: "Explaining Indonesia's 'Sink the Vessels' Policy Under Jokowi"). And though Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, the resource-rich Natunas in particular has been a sore point for Jakarta because China's notorious nine-dash line overlaps with its surrounding waters (See: "Natuna is Indonesian, Not Chinese: Jokowi Adviser").
Developments on both sides over the past few years have laid the groundwork for potential escalation, resulting in incidents similar – though not exactly identical – to that of the Kway Fey 10078. On the one hand, as I've emphasized previously, China has expanded naval exercises and patrols in the southernmost parts of its nine-dash line closer to Indonesia in recent years, resulting in direct confrontations with Indonesian vessels. For example, in 2010, when an Indonesian patrol boat captured a Chinese vessel illegally fishing within Jakarta's 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Beijing dispatched a maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessel, which allegedly pointed a machine gun at the Indonesian boat and compelled it to release the Chinese vessel. Similarly, in March 2013, when Indonesian officials boarded a Chinese vessel for the same reason and attempted to transport the nine fishermen ashore for legal proceedings, the captain was forced to release them following harassment by Chinese MLE vessels.

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