News Article

Jokowi promises no concession with China on Natuna Sea

Tensions are rising around Indonesia's South China Sea border

President Joko Widodo reaffirmed Indonesia’s claim to its sole economic zone in the Natuna Sea which is a body of water bordering the South China Sea as Chinese and Indonesian warships linger in a dispute in the field.

“In regards to Natuna, there is no tradeoff when it comes to our country’s territorial claims,” Widodo said at his first year’s cabinet meeting with Jakarta’s presidential palace on Monday.

Tensions rose over the past week after multiple Chinese fishing boats accompanied by two coast guard ships and a fishing patrol vessel reached the waters north of the Natuna Islands. Indonesia has deployed two warships and plans to send more, as reported by state news agency Antara on Sunday, according to a local navy command head.

Beijing has no territorial claims over the islands but insists waters off their northern coast are part of its common fishing grounds around the Spratly Islands. Which is a focal point in Beijing’s South China Sea tensions with several other Southeast Asian nations.

Indonesia has consistently said that it is not a claimant to the South China Sea but has steadily locked horns with China over the seas of Natuna over the last few years. Between 2014 to 2019, Susi Pudjiastuti, Widodo’s fisheries minister, violently confiscated and sometimes blew up international fishing vessels, including Chinese, captured smuggling in Indonesian waters.

Indonesia’s foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to Beijing last week to firmly condemn the current activities of Chinese warships in the Natuna Sea. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi repeated the position of Jakarta on Monday, urging China to abide by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, or Unclos, including its provisions on exclusive economic zones.

“Indonesia will never acknowledge the Nine-Dash Lines claimed by China,” Marsudi told reporters in Jakarta. “This is our sovereign right. The lines we drew for Indonesia’s EEZ are in line with the Unclos. All we want is for China as a party to Unclos is to abide by what’s in there.” Meanwhile, Chief Security Minister Mahfud MD said the navy would step up regular patrols around the Natuna Sea in the wake of the recent incident. The Indonesian Fishermen Association has also reportedly agreed to dispatch 500 fishing vessels to Natuna to help secure the area.

Beijing insists it’s not violating international law. Speaker of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Geng Shuang, said that the activities of Chinese fishermen on the Natuna Sea were “all along legal and legitimate,” and that the accompanying Chinese coast guards are performing their duties only.

“I want to stress that China’s position and propositions comply with the international law, including Unclos,” Geng said last week at a news conference 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.” Yet Widodo’s government is far from unified on the dispute, especially as Indonesia attempts to navigate the topic cautiously as it seeks to attract Chinese investment.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and the chief maritime minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, were criticised for playing down the issue by the public on social media.

Pandjaitan, who supervises security problems and is known as Beijing-friendly, said last week that there is “no need to blow up” the Natuna conflict and that it is Indonesia’s mistake not to set up adequate patrols in the seas. After Monday’s cabinet meeting, he said the EEZ is an economic problem, separate from the sovereignty issue.

Whereas Subianto, who toured Beijing last month, shocked many by claiming that China is a “good friend.” His comments refuted his strong anti-China stance when he stood in April’s presidential election against Widodo.

Many Indonesians regretted Widodo’s decision to replace Pudjiastuti, who was famous for her violent poacher chase, which has been lingering in Indonesian waters for decades, causing annual losses of trillions of rupiahs.

The new Minister for Fisheries, a politician from the Gerindra Party of Subianto, is seen as more docile and has been blamed for reduced patrols and allowing illegal fishing vessels to return to Indonesian waters.

The controversy over the Natuna Sea in Jakarta-Beijing goes back to March 2016 when Chinese coast guards assaulted an Indonesian patrol vessel for illegal fishing after an Indonesian seizure of Chinese-flagged fishing vessels in the region. Indonesia angered Beijing in 2017 by renaming the North Natuna Sea waters to the north of Natuna Islands. Then Indonesia set up a new military base on the Islands in December 2018.


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