Indonesia Protests China Coast Guard Incursions

China Coast Guard hull number 3303 defending a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel from Indonesian law enforcement, June 17, 2019 (Indonesian Navy Western Region Command)

Published Jan 1, 2020 8:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

Indonesia's foreign ministry has filed a formal complaint with China over alleged violations of the Indonesian EEZ in the vicinity of the Natuna Islands, one of the many regional flash points in the conflict over sovereignty in the South China Sea. 

China claims almost all of the South China Sea based on historical Chinese activity in the region, not on international law. The claim's boundaries are defined loosely by Beijing's "nine-dash line" chart, and they extend hundreds of miles south of the recognized Chinese EEZ boundary. UNCLOS restricts EEZ claims to 200 nm from the nation's own shores. 

In a statement issued January 1, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that China's historically-based claims to fishing rights inside of other nations' EEZs are not supported by UNCLOS, and that these claims have already been rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. 

The ministry also took the unusual step of rejecting China's use of the neutral term "the relevant waters" to refer to Indonesia's EEZ. The phrase follows a format often used by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when discussing disputes ("the relevant area," "the relevant individual," "the relevant party," etc.). "Indonesia rejects the term the 'relevant waters' claimed by [China] because this term is unknown and is incompatible with UNCLOS 1982," the ministry wrote. 

Further, Indonesia rejected the notion that it has anything to discuss with China about its boundaries. "Based on UNCLOS 1982, Indonesia does not have overlapping claims with the PRC so that it is not relevant to have any dialogue on maritime boundary delimitation," the ministry declared.

The statement follows a series of unauthorized incursions by Chinese fishing boats and China Coast Guard escort vessels into Indonesian waters. More than 50 Chinese fishing vessels and government ships entered the Indonesian EEZ on December 24, according to Indonesia's Maritime Security Agency. “An interagency meeting at the Foreign Ministry confirmed that there were violations in the Indonesian EEZ, including IUU fishing activities and violations of sovereignty by China’s Coast Guard in Natuna waters,” the ministry wrote Monday. 

In response, the ministry summoned China's ambassador to Jakarta, Xiao Qian, to protest the incursions and to communicate that Indonesia will not recognize the Chinese nine-dash line claim. 

According to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, the presence of China Coast Guard vessels is normal and expected in the area. "China has historical rights in the South China Sea. Chinese fishermen have long been engaging in fishery activities in relevant waters near the [Chinese-claimed Spratly Islands], which has all along been legal and legitimate. The China Coast Guard were performing their duty by carrying out routine patrol to maintain maritime order and protect our people's legitimate rights and interests in the relevant waters," Shuang said at a press conference Tuesday. The nearest of the Spratly Islands is located about 370 nm to the northeast of the Natuna Islands.

The incursions were observed on commercial AIS tracking platforms, and video of the encounters between Indonesian forces and the China Coast Guard has been released to Indonesian television outlets (below). 

The increase in Chinese incursions followed shortly after the departure of Indonesia's previous fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, who raised her ministry's profile by confiscating and destroying hundreds of unlicensed foreign fishing vessels. Pudjiastuti was not selected to retain her post in the new administration of Indonesian president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who won re-election in early 2019.