On Sunday, an incident involving a Chinese fishing boat in what Indonesia said was its waters has led to a diplomatic row between the two countries. While the development has sparked some sensationalist commentary, this is hardly the first time that the two sides have been embroiled in such a crisis. Indeed, the recent incident should be read in the context of old tensions that have long simmered leading to growing confrontations amid new developments.
While details remain murky, Indonesian accounts suggest that a Chinese coast guard rammed one of the country’s fishing boats, the Kway Fey 10078, to free it from Indonesian authorities after it had been seized for illegal fishing near the Natuna Islands. In response, Indonesia summoned Chinese embassy officials to express its discontent and vowed that the detained fishermen will be prosecuted under Indonesian law. Beijing, for its part, has demanded that Jakarta release the fishermen.
For close observers of Indonesian foreign policy, the incident is an escalation of ongoing tensions that have been simmering between the two sides, rather than an entirely new phenomenon. Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state, has long been miffed at illegal fishing by its Asian neighbors including China, a practice which it considers a violation of its sovereignty as well as a pilfering of its maritime resources (See: “Explaining Indonesia’s ‘Sink the Vessels’ Policy Under Jokowi”). And though Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, the resource-rich Natunas in particular has been a sore point for Jakarta because China’s notorious nine-dash line overlaps with its surrounding waters (See: “Natuna is Indonesian, Not Chinese: Jokowi Adviser”).
Developments on both sides over the past few years have laid the groundwork for potential escalation, resulting in incidents similar – though not exactly identical – to that of the Kway Fey 10078. On the one hand, as I’ve emphasized previously, China has expanded naval exercises and patrols in the southernmost parts of its nine-dash line closer to Indonesia in recent years, resulting in direct confrontations with Indonesian vessels. For example, in 2010, when an Indonesian patrol boat captured a Chinese vessel illegally fishing within Jakarta’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Beijing dispatched a maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessel, which allegedly pointed a machine gun at the Indonesian boat and compelled it to release the Chinese vessel. Similarly, in March 2013, when Indonesian officials boarded a Chinese vessel for the same reason and attempted to transport the nine fishermen ashore for legal proceedings, the captain was forced to release them following harassment by Chinese MLE vessels.
To be sure, the Kway Fey 10078 incident may have some key differences relative to previous ones: most notably, how close Chinese vessels got into Indonesian waters (on or inside Indonesia’s 12-nautical mile territorial sea during the later stages of the incident, not just within its 200-mile EEZ, according to the Indonesian foreign ministry’s account) as well as the fact that the vessel escorted by the Indonesian authorities was directly rammed. But the point here is that this is merely an escalation of previous instances of provocative behavior by Beijing rather than a notable first.
And though this is the first high-profile development of its kind under the administration of president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who came to power in 2014, trouble had long been brewing. Yes, Jokowi has been reluctant to depart from Indonesia’s traditional approach to the South China Sea, which stresses a careful balance between protecting its own territorial integrity as a non-claimant state while also helping informally facilitate confidence-building measures between those more directly involved (See: “No, Indonesia’s South China Sea Approach Has Not Changed”). He has also sought a constructive relationship with Beijing, Indonesia’s second largest trading partner, its fastest-growing market for foreign tourists, and a growing investor. But his administration’s tough line on issues of sovereignty – including the Natunas – the growing focus on the maritime domain, and its controversial war on illegal fishing, were bound to eventually rub up against Beijing’s growing naval presence close to Indonesian waters (See: “Indonesia’s Maritime Ambition: Can Jokowi Realize It?”.
Indeed, to a certain extent, it had already begun to do so. As I reported last May, after much deliberation, the Jokowi administration finally sunk the first Chinese vessel in its war on illegal fishing after detaining several of them for months. By finally doing so, the Jokowi government had signaled that the strident tone it adopted on sovereignty and territorial integrity extended even to its most important economic partners (See: “Indonesia Sinks First Vessel From China Under Jokowi”). And in response, China had expressed grave concern and sought clarification from Indonesia.
The fact that this incident is not without precedent does not mean that it should just be brushed aside. Indeed, Jakarta’s rhetoric thus far suggests that it is taking it very seriously. Indonesia’s fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti told reporters after meeting Chinese embassy officials that Jakarta may take the issue to an international tribunal, a rather curious proposition that nonetheless signifies the gravity of the situation, given the upcoming verdict on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against Beijing (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“). Meanwhile, Indonesia’s deputy navy chief Arie Henrycus Sembiring told a news conference that the navy would send bigger vessels to back up its patrol boats, a move that could potentially escalate the situation as well. The key question, of course, is whether Jakarta follows through on these moves and if they lead to a broader shift in its approach to the South China Sea or towards Beijing more generally.
In the past, the two countries have at times been able to eventually resolve these situations diplomatically following initial saber-rattling. But China has since become more assertive in the maritime domain, and Indonesia more vocal in asserting its own rights. And while mutual interest in preserving a critical relationship nonetheless ought to lead to cooler heads prevailing, the seriousness of the current situation makes it more difficult to find a face-saving solution compared to some of the other previous incidents. Irrespective of the outcome itself, there is little question that the incident will feed into a narrative of growing confrontations in Asian waters.