On May 20, Indonesia destroyed a Chinese vessel caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters near the South China Sea, the first since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo declared war on illegal fishing since coming to office late last year.
The Jakarta Post cited Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti as saying that the Gui Xei Yu 12661, a steel-made, 300-gross-ton boat, was sunk on Wednesday in Pontianak, West Kalimantan after it was detonated by the ministry with an explosive device planted on it. The boat was reportedly among 41 vessels simultaneously destroyed to commemorate National Awakening Day, with the others being from neighboring states including the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Indonesian government has been criticized by some in Southeast Asia for its controversial policy of sinking foreign boats from neighboring countries, a practice which Jokowi and his advisers say is necessary since illegal fishing costs the country billions of dollars in lost revenue each year (See: “Explaining Indonesia’s Sink The Vessels Policy Under Jokowi”). According to The Jakarta Post, between October 2014 and March 2015, the ministry and the navy sunk 18 boats from Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
But observers had questioned whether Indonesia would be willing to sink a Chinese vessel and risk potentially straining ties with a country which is Jakarta’s second largest trading partner, its top source of foreign tourists, and a growing investor. As The Diplomat reported exclusively in December, a Jokowi foreign policy adviser had suggested that the government would not be afraid to do so. (See: “Indonesia May Sink Chinese Vessels: Jokowi Adviser”). Yet, over the past few months, though Indonesia had detained several Chinese vessels, it held back from actually sinking them.
By now finally sinking its first Chinese vessel, the Jokowi government has shown that it is indeed willing to apply its ‘sink the vessels’ policy consistently, and confirmed that the strident tone it has adopted on sovereignty and territorial integrity extends even to its most important economic partners, as I had emphasized earlier. (See: “China and Indonesia Under Jokowi: Show Me The Money”).
That being said, the way which Jakarta chose to carry this out does suggest caution on its part. As opposed to other Asian states whose vessels were sunk with immediate effect, Indonesia’s stance towards China evolved more gradually, with the seizure of several boats in December leading the government to revoke a deal signed with Beijing on cooperation in the fisheries sector in early 2015 before the first sinking was carried out this week. The first Chinese vessel to be sunk was also destroyed among 41 vessels in line with a particular national occasion, rather than being done alone or with other Chinese boats only, as has been the case at times with vessels from other countries. In addition, Susi was careful to emphasize that the sinkings – which were carried out jointly by the ministry and the navy – was not a show of force, but merely a case of Indonesia enforcing its laws.