Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea

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Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea

Indonesia’s new president could jeopardize bilateral relations and ASEAN unity with his maritime “shock therapy.”

Indonesia: Playing With Fire in the South China Sea
Credit: Indonesian Navy Troops via Shutterstock.com

On December 5 newly installed President Joko Widodo ordered Indonesian authorities to set fire to and sink three Vietnamese boats caught fishing illegally in waters near the Anambas Islands. This incident was covered by the media and given widespread publicity.

The following day Indonesia officially announced its new policy of “shock therapy” for illegal poachers. President Widodo told Antara News Agency, “We sunk three of them on Friday to teach them a lesson, so that they will give up poaching in Indonesian waters.” According to Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Indonesia intended to demonstrate “stern government action” and would sink five Thai fishing boats seized near West Kalimantan after President Widodo announced his get-tough policy.

President Widodo offered a justification for his actions in a series of interviews with the foreign press. Widodo told The Wall Street Journal, “Every day there [are] around 5,400 [foreign] boats in our ocean and our sea. And 90% of them are illegal. So to give shock therapy to them, of course, we [are] sinking them.” Government authorities estimated that Indonesia looses more than $20 billion annually due to illegal fishing.

President Widodo also noted that Vietnam was not being singled out. He claimed that fishing boats sailing under the flag of any other nation engaged in illegal fishing would be treated on the same basis. Under legislation adopted in 2009, relevant Indonesian authorities may impound or sink fishing vessels operating in Indonesian water without proper permits.

In an interview with the Indonesian language service of the Voice of America, President Widodo was quoted as stating, “I instructed the ministry, the military commander, that this [illegal fishing] couldn’t continue. I instructed them three or four weeks ago to sink ships involved in illegal fishing. Sink them! No more! But thank Allah, last Friday, we started sinking several ships.”

President Widodo also told Agence France Presse, “I asked our foreign minister to explain that this is a purely criminal issue and has nothing to do with neighborly relations.”

Susi Pudjiastuti, Minister for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, revealed that a week prior to the burning of the Vietnamese boats she had alerted the ambassadors from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, but apparently not Vietnam, that Indonesia was moving to impose sanctions and tougher regulations for illegal fishing in its waters.

Five countries are the major source of illegal fishing in Indonesian waters: China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.  Within five days of President Widodo’s announcement of his “shock therapy” policy Indonesia seized 155 foreign fishing vessels.

Minister Susi Pudjiastuti reported that Indonesia’s shock therapy resulted in a dramatic drop in foreign boats operating around Natuna Island. She also claimed that no harm was done to Indonesia’s relations with neighboring countries. Still, President Widodo’s policy of shock therapy raises questions about Indonesia’s treatment of its long-time political and diplomatic ally, Vietnam.

On June 27, 2013 Indonesia and Vietnam publicly announced that they had raised their bilateral relations to a strategic partnership. Points 10 and 11 of the Joint Statement announcing the strategic partnership stated:

10. The two leaders observed the progress in the fisheries and aquaculture cooperation and emphasized the need for both countries to further implement the MoU on Marine and Fisheries Cooperation (2010) to further tap the high potentials of cooperation in this area and to address illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, including on the arrangement for returning fishermen caught or arrested due to (IUU) fishing.

11. The two leaders directed the technical team to expedite their discussion for the early conclusion on delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and, without prejudice to the final settlement of maritime boundary delimitation, encouraged both sides to find a temporary solution to facilitate cooperation in marine and fisheries affairs.

A separate explanatory note issued by Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two sides “agreed… to closely coordinate in dealing with issues relating to fishermen and fishing boats that encroach each side’s territorial waters on the basis of humanity and friendship.”

On December 9, Pham Thu Hang, spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that Vietnam had contacted Indonesia about the sinking of Vietnamese-flagged boats and appealed to Indonesia to deal with the fishermen “in accordance with international laws, based on humane spirit and on the relations between Indonesia and other countries.”

In the past year an unprecedented number of Chinese fishing boats have been operating in sensitive waters around Natuna Island. This year foreign analysts reported that Chinese fishing boats have even entered Indonesia’s territorial waters and in some cases have sailed up estuaries on small islands. This has led some observers to speculate that Widodo’s policy of shock therapy was a signal to China to rein in such activity.

On December 10, Hong Lei, the official spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a written statement that noted officials from both countries were working to confirm the details of Indonesia’s seizure of Chinese fishing boats. The statement also called on Indonesian authorities “to ensure the safety and legal rights of Chinese crews and address this issue properly.” In the two weeks since President Widodo announced his policy no government spokesperson has ventured to comment on the fate of 22 Chinese vessels seized in the Arafura Sea for illegal fishing.

Widodo’s new shock therapy policy also raises questions about the extent to which domestic populism is driving his policy. According to Farish Noor, writing in Malaysia’s New Straits Times, “what is troubling about the incident (setting fire to and sinking three Vietnamese fishing boats)… is that it was a demonstration of power in terms that seem harsh, over-the-top and contrary to the ASEAN spirit of compromise and dialogue.”

Farish Noor singled out two issues. First, he argued that the publicity given to the sinking of the Vietnamese boats “gives the impression that Indonesia is the only victim, when we know this is not true.” He pointed out that Indonesian fishermen were guilty of fishing illegally in the waters of neighboring countries as well.

Secondly, Farish Noor noted, “in the past, such boats were captured, the crews arrested and escorted back to their home waters. Illegal fishing is a problem that the whole of ASEAN faces, and not Indonesia alone.” Noor then asked rhetorically how would Indonesians feel if other countries retaliated and burned Indonesian fishing boats?

Farish Noor concluded:

“[T]he moves by Indonesia have gone against the spirit of the association [ASEAN], and can lead to the view that these are populist moves calculated to satisfy the electorate. But if every country in ASEAN followed the same path – pandering to populism, burning the ships of neighbor, etc – then where will ASEAN head to?”

Indonesian legal expert Frans Hendra Winarta concurred. He accused President Widodo of being careless by burning and sinking foreign fishing boats because this risked raising political tensions with fellow members of ASEAN on the eve of the creation of an ASEAN Economic Community.

Winarta described the sinking of the Vietnamese boasts as a show of force and a political maneuver to win domestic support. He argued, “Sinking poaching boats should be the last resort and not a primary one. I am concerned with the way our legal (standing) is heading: showing force but failing to look far ahead.”

President Widodo shows no sign of rethinking his get-tough policy. On December 15 he journeyed to Kotabaru in South Kalimantan to mark Nusantara Day, when Indonesia declared itself an archipelagic state on December 13, 1957. In a speech to mark this occasion Widodo noted that many leaders from neighboring countries called him prior to the public burning of the Vietnamese fishing boats. Widodo revealed “(They asked) ‘Pak Jokowi, why use dynamite to sink ships?’ I answered that this was only the first warning. There would be another message and the second warning… Just wait.”

An editorial in Singapore’s The Straits Times called for President Widodo to enlist the services of “an eloquent point man to put the scope of Indonesia’s nationalism in the proper perspective.” The editorial concluded:

“It would be in Jakarta’s interests to ensure diplomatic relations with countries in the region are safeguarded by not neglecting bilateral approaches to poaching issues and the detention of foreign boats, including those of Vietnam, Thailand, and China. Such efforts would also be in step with Jakarta’s avowed intention of continuing to be actively involved in ASEAN community-building process, with an eye on the formation of an ASEAN Economic Community.”

During Indonesia’s recent national elections and on inauguration day President Widodo has propounded the goal of reviving Indonesia’s past grandeur as a seafaring nation by making modern-day Indonesia a Global Maritime Axis. This vision appears to have emboldened Widodo to apply his shock therapy policy to resolve the issue of illegal poaching. This policy will not succeed because it is a regional problem and Indonesia lacks the resources to implement it effectively.

President Widodo’s reliance on populism to shore up his new government may play well at home but it has the potential to raise unnecessary friction in long-standing bilateral relations with neighboring states and undermine the process of ASEAN community-building. If Indonesia aspires to play a leading role in Southeast Asian affairs it must drop unilateral measures and exert leadership to craft a multilateral regional response.