China to Indonesia: Thanks For All the Fish


Over the weekend, Chinese coast guard vessels brazenly reclaimed a Chinese fishing boat being towed by Indonesian maritime authorities after it was caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters. The incident occurred around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands in waters that conveniently overlap with China’s infamous nine-dashed line area. Despite being inside Indonesian territorial waters, the particular seas in question are claimed by the Chinese as “traditional fishing waters.” It’s the first high-profile confrontation between an increasingly assertive China and Southeast Asia’s largest state, a non-claimant in previous South China Sea disputes.

This is a calculated escalation by China which has aggravated Southeast Asian states one by one over the course of a few years, starting with the Philippines and Scarborough Shoal followed by Vietnam and the CNOOC oil rig (not once but twice). Just last week the Malaysian defense minister publicly called for consultations with regional states to discuss China’s potential militarization of parts of the South China Sea. Nerves are being frayed. This week’s snatch-and-grab away from Indonesian law enforcement reflects the way China sees the region and is a taste of how it will treat even the best of its Southeast Asian partners.

The incident complicates Indonesia’s long-held nonaligned stance in which it has carefully maintained the semblance of good relations with both China and the United States. On closer inspection, there is a qualitative difference between Indonesia’s security relationships with China and the United States. Cooperation with the United States is far more established and covers a greater number and variety of activities than activities with China. This latest incident could result in a turn toward even greater depth in that longstanding relationship, particularly in the maritime domain. But more importantly, this is an opportunity for Indonesia to now actively lobby other Indo-Pacific states — in particular Japan, India and Australia — to work together in the maritime sphere.

China’s behavior undercuts the Indonesian president’s Global Maritime Fulcrum vision. This concept positions sovereignty front and center, and has the eradication of illegal fishing as a core domestic element. Despite wanting to keep good relations with China and investment flowing into the country, Indonesia can’t afford to sweep this incident under the rug. China’s “liberation” of its vessel from Indonesian law enforcement, in Indonesian waters, shows flagrant disregard for Indonesia’s sovereignty. It would be an error for President Joko Widodo to let this pass without some sort of reaction, lest he appear weak or his fulcrum concept full of contradictions. Jokowi must stand his ground. In the past he has shown his resolve by mandating the destruction of foreign vessels caught illegally fishing. But, staying silent in this case will be a sign that his administration is willing to tolerate sovereignty violations when the going gets tough.

This incident is sure to rattle Indonesian military officials, who have obliquely expressed concern in the past about China’s encroachment in territorial waters. Statements about upgrading Indonesian bases in more remote parts of the archipelago and locating a squadron of helicopters near Natuna (more symbolic than material) are a response to the perceived threat of Chinese incursions. In the past, senior political figures like the president and defense minister were more circumspect, wanting to avoid military exercises that could trigger instability. Things could get a bit noisier now that there’s cause for action. With a chief of defense force who is acutely sensitive to matters of sovereignty as well, it would be a good time for Jakarta to focus on upgrades to its navy and air force as part of ongoing modernization plans. On the civilian side, the coast guard is in desperate need of the patrol vessels promised to it by the Indonesian Navy.

It’s not just for domestic reasons that Jokowi has to show real grit with China. The rest of Southeast Asia is watching. It has been a shame that Jokowi has been less engaged with ASEAN and focused primarily on domestic issues. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi is also a different actor to her predecessor Marty Natalegawa whose style of active shuttle diplomacy found a home in ASEAN. But nevertheless, Indonesia must lead in ASEAN; no other state in Southeast Asia has the size or gravitas to step up and take charge. It’s therefore up to Jokowi to not only strengthen his own maritime hand, but also help steer ASEAN towards a swifter conclusion of the Code of Conduct with Beijing in the South China Sea. In material terms, it might not hold the Chinese at bay, but revitalizing ASEAN’s consensus-based spirit is a way of rallying the troops for the longer fight. And rally they must, for we have only seen the beginning.


Natalie Sambhi is a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she focuses on Indonesian foreign and defense policy. She is also host of Sea Control: Asia Pacific, a podcast series by the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC).