Indonesia has reacted with anger after Chinese fishing boats protected by coast guard warships forced their way into its territorial waters.
Jakarta has mobilised its military and raised its combat alert status in the Natuna archipelago in response to the incursions which began late last year.
“Our Navy and air force are armed and have been deployed to the North Natuna Sea,” military spokesman Major General Sisriadi said at the weekend. This includes six warships intended to “drive out the foreign vessels”.
“We are not only deploying ships, but also fighter jets. We are on full alert,” Sisriadi said.
The Natuna archipelago occupies a particularly strategic spot in the South China Sea. Its waters contain significant oil and gas reserves. But it also sits astride arterial shipping lanes passing through the narrow Malacca Strait.
Update (6 Jan): Two Chinese coast guard cutters have departed Fiery Cross Reef, heading in the direction of Natuna at 20 knots. pic.twitter.com/Kkxe04edoM
— Ryan Martinson (@rdmartinson88) January 6, 2020
Indonesia’s air force deployed four F-16 combat jets to the South China Sea area yesterday. Four more naval vessels have been sent to reinforce the four already on station.
China, however, has also moved to escalate the confrontation.
Two further armed coast guard vessels were yesterday seen departing its island fortress of Fiery Cross Reef, headed south towards the Natuna islands.
Indonesia’s armed forces, the TNI, is responding to the incursion by activating a Maritime Information Centre in the islands to track and intercept any ships deemed to be violating the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“It will be able to detect and identify every ship that enters Indonesian waters,” Sisriadi said.
First Admiral Nursyawal Embun told the state-run Andalou Agency that two new warships have arrived to reinforce Indonesia’s presence in Natuna waters. More ships were deployed to the area yesterday, bringing the total to eight.
“This is the first time we have faced such behaviour, they insist that the five degrees latitude of Indonesia’s EEZ is their territory,” he said.
China does not separate the civilian policing powers of its coastguard from its military, as other nations do. Instead, these ships are fully-crewed, operated and co-ordinated by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Yesterday, an Indonesian air force spokesman confirmed combat jets had been deployed.
“They’re doing standard patrols to protect our sovereign area. It just so happened that they’re patrolling Natuna,” he said. “We don’t have the order to start a war with China.”
Earlier this week, Indonesia instructed its own fishing fleets to converge on the archipelago as a sign of commitment to its sovereignty over the economic zone.
DRAGON AT THE GATES
Indonesia’s Joint Defense Area Command chief Rear Admiral Yudo Margono said the Chinese ships had been observed engaged in illegal fishing.
“The ships were accompanied by a couple of Chinese coastguard vessels and one fishing guard vessel,” he added. “We are focusing on adding military power there. We will deploy four additional warships to drive out the foreign vessels (Monday).”
The Chinese coast guard ships have been identified as the Zhongguohaijing and Haijing 35111.
Indonesian Institute of Sciences political researcher Muhammad Haripin says Jakarta’s response should be strong.
“They must be arrested so that there is a deterrent effect,” Haripin told BenarNews.
“The government can also provide security for Indonesian fishermen so they will not be afraid to go to the sea.”
Indonesia last week filed a formal note of protest against China over the violations of its territory.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang stated last week that the ship’s activities were “routine”. Their mission was to assert Chinese ownership over the nearby Spratly Islands “and has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters”.
“The China Coast Guard were performing their duty by carrying out routine patrols to maintain maritime order and protect our people’s legitimate rights and interests in the relevant waters.”
He said Beijing would welcome “bilateral dialogue” with Jakarta to manage the dispute.
But the chief security minister on Sunday rejected the call for talks, asserting Indonesia would never negotiate its sovereign rights over the Natuna waters.
“In regard to the incident involving Chinese fishing boats who were guarded by the Chinese government ships, in principle, Indonesia will never negotiate with China,” co-ordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD told Indonesian media.
Jakarta rejects that it has any overlapping territorial claims with China.
It also has consistently dismissed the legitimacy of Beijing’s nine-dash-line assertion of ownership over 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometre South China Sea. It is bordered by Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.
“We urge China to explain the legal basis and provide clear a definition for its claims on Indonesian EEZ based on 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea),” a statement from Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reads.
Jakarta insists Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea were “unilateral, have no legal basis and have never been recognised by the 1982 UNCLOS”. In contrast, it claims Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in the Natuna region was established under the convention.
But China’s foreign affairs ministry spokesman Geng Shuang insisted Beijing’s claims were legitimate.
“(Our) position and propositions comply with international law, including UNCLOS,” he told state-controlled media in Beijing. “So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters.”
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected that claim in 2016.
Beijing has ignored the ruling.
“The so-called award of the South China Sea arbitration is illegal, null and void and we have long made it clear that China neither accepts nor recognises it,” Geng said. “The Chinese side firmly opposes any country, organisation or individual using the invalid arbitration award to hurt China’s interests.”
Likewise, Indonesia is giving no ground.
Indonesian cabinet minister Luhut Pandjaitan said yesterday China’s economic influence over Indonesia did not give it rights to Indonesian territory.
“I would not sell our sovereignty for investment, never,” he said. “I’m not stupid.”
“China has no rights to claim the area,” Minister Mahfud said yesterday. “If we negotiated with them, it would imply that we recognise a territorial dispute. There is no dispute as Indonesia is the legitimate owner of the whole area.
“A negotiating team is out of the question. We will defend our sovereignty and expel intruders with all that we’ve got.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel