By Jarryd de Haan Luke, Future Directions Interternational
Indonesian Minster of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs, Susi Pudjiasti summoned the Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia to discuss a recent maritime incident off the coast of Natuna Islands. According to Ms Susi, Indonesia was attempting to detain a Chinese vessel which was spotted fishing illegally near the islands. Indonesian officials managed to board the ship as it fled towards the South China Sea, arresting a total of eight crew members, but were interrupted when a Chinese Coast Guard ship intervened and reportedly “rammed” the vessel, pushing it into the South China Sea. A representative from China’s Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, told Reuters that the trawler was carrying out normal activities in traditional Chinese fishing grounds and was attacked and harassed by an armed Indonesian ship. China has also demanded the immediate release of the detained fishermen who are being held for questioning by the Indonesian authorities.
At the centre of the incident is the South China Sea dispute and it is telling that the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the location of the incident ‘traditional Chinese fishing grounds’, despite the Indonesian statement that the incident took place just over four kilometres off the coast of the Natuna islands, Indonesian territory that is well within Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This will heighten Indonesian concerns over China’s claims in the region and whether or not those claims directly threaten the Indonesian EEZ.
As noted in a previous FDI Strategic Analysis Paper, one of Jakarta’s primary objectives is safeguarding the maritime resources within the bounds of its EEZ. Threats to those resources could provoke Indonesia into abandoning its traditional mediatory role in the South China Sea dispute and adopting a tougher stance against China, as when, in November 2015, Jakarta threatened to take Beijing to the International Criminal Court.
The likelihood that this incident will escalate any further, however, is unlikely. Indonesia already showed restraint during the boarding and, according to Ms Susi ‘We want to avoid a much more serious incident, so we settled on just arresting the eight crew members. The ship got away but we have the eight men in custody to help us investigate this incident’. Chinese Embassy spokesman Xu Hangtian has also warned Indonesia to exercise caution, saying, ‘It is hoped that the Indonesian side could properly handle this issue, taking into consideration the overall picture of our bilateral relations’. China is funding one of Indonesia’s largest infrastructure projects, the Jakarta-Bandung railway. This may be a reason for Jakarta to exercise caution in its dealings with Beijing, but at the same time, China is in no position to endanger relations with Indonesia.
In its bid to fund the Jakarta-Bandung railway, Beijing was willing to take financial risks to secure the contract. Unlike the bid from Japan, China agreed to waive any funding guarantees from the Indonesian Government reflecting its eagerness to realise the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) strategy under the New Silk Road initiative.
Through the OBOR strategy, China seeks to extend its influence throughout Asia by the use of soft power and damaging its relationship with one of the major emerging economies in south-east Asia will do little to further China’s ambitions.
While this incident is not indicative of any dramatic deterioration in the Indonesia-China relationship, it does reflect the, at times, difficult nature of the relationship, in which diplomacy has not always been a strong point. Indonesia has often complained about the lack of clarity of China’s “nine-dash line” in relation to the Natuna Islands. These latest difficulties aside, it is important for both countries that a healthy economic partnership continues to anchor the relationship.