China’s Rift With Indonesia in the Natunas: Harbinger of Worse to Come?

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China’s Rift With Indonesia in the Natunas: Harbinger of Worse to Come?

A closer look at the Chinese ship involved in the incident suggests some worrying signs about what to expect from Beijing.

China’s Rift With Indonesia in the Natunas: Harbinger of Worse to Come?

An Indonesian Navy rigid-hull inflatable boat (far left) confronts a Chinese Coast Guard vessel near Natuna Island. Source: KKP

Credit: KKP

The recent Sino-Indonesian standoff in waters close to the Natuna Islands reflects the growing capabilities of the China Coast Guard (CCG). The incident on March 19-20, which has precipitated the most serious diplomatic rift between Indonesia and China in recent years, saw a CCG ship ramming and preventing a Chinese fishing boat from being towed by an Indonesian task force in charge of countering illegal fishing. These and other recent actions indicate the enhanced confidence of CCG personnel in operating increasingly farther from mainland coasts for longer durations.

The Chinese patrol ship involved could offer some hints about Beijing’s capabilities. Except for a low-resolution picture of that vessel released by the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fishery, we cannot determine with absolute certainty which CCG ship it was. However, a visual comparison of the ship’s exterior profile with those of vessels operated by the CCG South China Sea Branch suggests that it was CCG3210.

So what’s interesting about this ship then? Some background is necessary here. CCG3210’s previous incarnation was Yuzheng-310 – a 2,580-tonne patrol ship built in 2010 for the Fishery Law Enforcement Command (FLEC). This ship participated in the March 2013 incident off Natuna Islands. In fact, prior to this incident, Yuzheng-310 participated in patrols off Scarborough Shoal after the standoff with the Philippines in April 2012. In July the same year, this ship escorted a 30-vessel Chinese fishing fleet to waters off Fiery Cross, sailing for a total of 78 hours from Hainan Island.

Indeed, Chinese coastguard vessels often perform escort duties for Chinese fishermen to venture along the furthest extent of China’s so-called nine-dash line or U-shaped line claim. Not only can these escorts deter or resist other countries from harassing the fishermen; they can also support the use of these fishermen as proxies in enforcing the U-shaped line, as was the case with Yuzheng-310 which had made several forays into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Natuna Islands.

When CCG subsumed FLEC, the Yuzheng-310 was re-designated CCG3210 – the first digit “3” denoting the South China Sea Branch, second digit “2” denoting displacement between 2,000 and less than 3,000 tons, and the last digits inherited from the hull number used in previous service. That the CCG3210 was again involved in the latest standoff with Indonesia demonstrates some form of possible state-organized institutional continuity wherein a specific ship and its crew would be assigned to individual areas of responsibility.

That CCG3210 has been involved in more than one incident off the Natuna Islands illustrates a certain level of confidence and familiarity that the ship’s crew has accumulated thus far within this specific operating area. That confidence is illustrated by the sheer fact that CCG3210 travelled at 25 knots to intercept and ram the under-tow Kwey Fey. It would not have made sense for an inexperienced crew, unfamiliar with the ship’s capabilities and operating area, to sail CCG3210 at such high speed in waters so far away from mainland coasts.

The other notable ship of the South China Sea Branch is CCG3184, whose previous incarnation was the 1,500-tonne Haijian-84 of China Marine Surveillance which was later also subsumed under the CCG. Haijian-84 was involved in South China Sea incidents earlier than Yuzheng-310 which performed its first patrols in the area in 2012. Not long after being commissioned into service, Haijian-84 severed the cables of Vietnamese seismic survey vessel Binh Minh-02, some 43 miles southeast of Con Co Island in May 2011. The incident took place well within an area where Chinese and Vietnamese EEZs overlap. Furthermore, the location is within 200 miles of Hainan.

Evidently, Haijian-84 managed to project further out eastward into the South China Sea. It was one of the ships that prevented the Philippine Navy frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar from arresting Chinese fishermen during the Scarborough Shoal standoff in April 2012, this time at least 500 miles from Hainan. And it has recently gone further south too, having last shown up on MarineTraffic.com on 22 March 2016 which indicated its presence in Malaysian EEZ.

Together, CCG3210 and CCG3184 would appear to illustrate institutionalized continuity within CCG of deploying hardware and crew to specific areas of responsibility. That CCG3184 was able to operate from waters near mainland coasts further east and deeper south witin the South China Sea suggests the CCG’s accumulation of skills and confidence in sustained long-duration missions far away from its home bases. At least some of its ships and crews are likely designated to specialize in certain areas, becoming better at their tasks in the process.

Growing specialization can have significant implications not just for training and technical competence of Chinese personnel, but arguably their boldness in engaging with other South China Sea claimants as well. Potentially trained and inspired by the senior officers who might have served longer on board, this newfound confidence could also be increasing the crew’s tendency for pushing the envelope incrementally and testing the resolve of other claimant states. Over time, these coastguard units would gain familiarity with how each claimant reacts to every incident and plan their counter-reaction accordingly while avoiding any chance of uncontrollable escalation.

These patchy details notwithstanding, some regional implications can be discussed here. As a strategic policy instrument, if these assumptions hold and trends continue, the CCG will become more effective at both enforcing the U-shaped line and deterring escalation at the same time, with Beijing’s highest diplomatic support ready in the background.

If CCG ships and crews had already long begun to learn progressively from operating close to mainland coasts to waters further away, then the fortification and militarization of Beijing-occupied features in the South China Sea would further augment and enhance this nascent but significant institutionalized capacity in terms of ship and crew.

Practically, these fortified features should allow the ships and their crews to rest and replenish, negating the need for regular returns back to mainland bases. Psychologically, it assures the crew that there are nearby installations that will provide needed support in times of emergency, including inclement weather that requires them to seek shelter. It is therefore reasonable to expect a steadily rising presence of Chinese fishing fleets in disputed areas of the South China Sea, backed by an increasingly well-equipped, experienced and assertive CCG. The reported presence of over 100 China-flagged vessels – most probably a fishing fleet backed by the CCG – in Malaysia’s EEZ  near South Luconia Shoals on 24 March 2016 is indicative of what’s to come. In the near future, encounters such as those off Natuna may well happen with greater regularity and intensity.

Ristian A. Supriyanto is Indonesian Presidential PhD Scholar with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University; Shahriman Lockman is a Senior Analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia; and Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.