The Natuna Standoff: Transcending Fisheries Issues?

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The Natuna Standoff: Transcending Fisheries Issues?

Although Indonesia clings to its non-claimant status, it is beefing up its efforts to deter Chinese maritime incursions.

The Natuna Standoff: Transcending Fisheries Issues?

An aerial view of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

Credit: Flickr/Stratman²

On September 12, the latest in a long line of maritime standoffs occurred between Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut, or Bakamla) and the China Coast Guard (CCG). In the standoff, the Bakamla vessel KN Pulau Nipah-321 identified a CCG vessel, CCG-5402, sailing within Indonesia’s 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands. In response to the incursion, Bakamla intercepted and established radio communication with CCG 5402. The incident resulted in a bilateral diplomatic wrangle when the Chinese vessel asserted that it had a “right to patrol” within China’s “nine-dash line” claim. The latest incident is significant because it transmits a stronger signal that the bilateral issue is no longer solely about lawfare over fishing rights in the South China Sea.

Since 2010, Indonesia had been involved in at least seven maritime clashes with CCG vessels, in which the Indonesian side has attempted to prevent Chinese illegal fishing within the nation’s EEZ. For instance, in January 2020, Bakamla spotted around 50 Chinese fishing boats fishing illegally off Natuna Besar, accompanied by two CCG vessels and a frigate. Following a formal protest from Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson claimed that Chinese fishermen were free to conduct activities in their “traditional fishing ground,” and that nothing would change “the objective fact that China has rights” over the relevant waters.

The September incident was qualitatively different, in that the CCG impinged on Indonesia’s EEZ without the presence of Chinese fishing vessels. In past incidents – at least those that were reported publicly – CCG vessels were typically present to protect Chinese fishing vessels conducting illegal fishing within Indonesia’s EEZ. There are two possible explanations for this development. On the one hand, this incident could be one of the many Chinese maritime incursions that went unreported or undetected until more intensive patrol activities were conducted, originating from a recent Prevent and Repel Operation led by Bakamla in early September. Alternatively, this could also mark a significant escalation of China’s “gray zone strategy” of asserting its rights unilaterally, in this case by the deployment of Coast Guard vessels into the area. The latter likelihood is all the more likely due to the fact that upon receiving Bakamla’s warning, the Chinese vessel responded that it “had the right to patrol” within the “nine-dash line.”

Regardless of the speculative nature of what really happened, and the real intention behind China’s move, the issue appears more and more to be one of contested maritime boundaries, meaning that the Indonesian government must be prepared to respond in kind in future.

Indeed, in the past five years, the Indonesian government had hesitated to frame the issue as a traditional border dispute, preferring to see the maritime clashes between Bakamla and the CCG in the South China Sea as “fishing incidents.” This is understandable, given Indonesia’s position as a non-claimant state in the South China Sea – the position it has taken since the 1990s. Furthermore, it is expedient given China’s economic and military preponderance in the region. As a result, in March 2016, after a Chinese Coast Guard vessel prevented an Indonesian task force from towing away a Chinese fishing boat that had been found operating illegally inside Indonesia’s EEZ, the government interpreted the incident as a threat related to illegal fishing rather than the maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

The government further doubled down on the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing dimension through the establishment of an Anti-Illegal Fishing Task Force called Satgas 115 in 2015. This ad hoc unit spearheaded former Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti’s draconian policy of blowing up confiscated fishing vessels. Satgas 115 has the authority to coordinate and organize resources from other relevant institutions to combat IUU fishing, including the Bakamla, the Indonesian Navy and the National Police. The taskforce unit was very active in operations combating IUU fishing, including in capturing foreign fishing vessels in the waters off Natuna Besar. This policy has since changed under the new minister Edhy Prabowo, who has chosen to donate the seized vessels to local fishermen rather than destroying them.

Admittedly, since mid-2016, the government has complemented the IUU approach with a more assertive balancing approach, tasking the Indonesian Navy with frequent patrols of the waters around Natuna, presumably as a more forceful deterrent. Grey hulls have somewhat replaced the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries’ vessels, which had previously been tasked with patrolling the area to prevent IUU fishing. Most notably, in January 2020, Indonesia tasked the Joint Regional Defense Command, a unit within the Indonesian Military (TNI) established in September 2019, to drive away Chinese vessels from the waters around the Natuna Islands. The operation involved warships and several maritime surveillance aircraft – the largest deployment around Natuna thus far.

At the operational level, the Indonesian government has also beefed up the deterrent capacity of Bakamla through the procurement of twenty 12.7-mm SM-5 machine guns from PT Pindad. Previously, Bakamla ships were not permitted to use heavy military equipment. Bakamla has also confirmed the procurement of a 30-mm remote-controlled weapon system (RWS),which will help strengthen the self-defense capacity of its four patrol vessels. This change in posture is important because Bakamla previously lacked a self-defense capability, compared to the coast guards of neighboring countries, including Malaysia and Vietnam (to say nothing of China). While the armament of Bakamla vessels remains important, the interoperability exercises with the Indonesian Navy should also be considered vital in enhancing its conjunction operation and situational awareness capabilities.

Further, the Jokowi administration has recently pushed for Bakamla to become the embryo of a national coast guard. To date, Bakamla’s authority remains limited to being a “coordinator,” managing maritime security affairs with relevant agencies and institutions, some of which have overlapping authorities. An upcoming omnibus law on maritime security affairs, currently in the process of being formulated, is expected to designate Bakamla as Indonesia’s only coast guard. If passed, the new legislation would strengthen Bakamla’s law enforcement authority and smooth its coordination with the Indonesian Navy.

Tiola is a Senior Analyst and Dedi Dinarto is a Research Analyst with the Indonesia Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.