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Did the Natuna incident really affect Indonesia-China relations?

On March 19, the Chinese fishing boat Kway Fey entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and was detained by the Indonesian navy while engaged in illegal trawling. But as the boat was being pulled in towards the Natuna Islands, a Chinese coast guard vessel — two to three times larger and more advanced than the Indonesian vessel — intervened and freed the fishing boat.

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On March 19, the Chinese fishing boat Kway Fey entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and was detained by the Indonesian navy while engaged in illegal trawling. But as the boat was being pulled in towards the Natuna Islands, a Chinese coast guard vessel — two to three times larger and more advanced than the Indonesian vessel — intervened and freed the fishing boat.

The eight Chinese crew members of the boat, however, remained detained by the Indonesian authorities.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta and protested that the Chinese vessel had entered Indonesian waters and intervened in the arrest of the Chinese fishing boat. (Since the ambassador was away in Beijing at the time, the Minister-Counselor went in his place).

Ms Hua Chunying, the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, replied thus: “When the incident happened, the Chinese fishing boat was in Chinese traditional fishing grounds, doing normal productive activities. On March 19, the boat was attacked and harassed by the Indonesian armed vessel, and China’s coast guard came to the rescue. It did not enter the Indonesian waters. We demand that the Indonesian authorities immediately release the crew of the fishing boat.”

She also noted: “The sovereignty of the Natuna Islands belongs to Indonesia. China does not have any other opinion. Regarding the dispute on the sea, both sides should resolve it through negotiations.”

Yet Global Times, the English-language newspaper linked to People’s Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party, published an opinion piece with a different take on the issue.

“There is no territorial dispute between China and Indonesia in (the) South China Sea,” wrote Mr Ding Gang, a senior editor with People’s Daily.

“Jakarta claimed the area that the Chinese vessel fished in is within the EEZ derived from the Natuna islands, but it also overlaps part of China’s nine-dash line,” Mr Ding added, referring to the line China used to assert its historical claim over most of the South China Sea.

These statements are useful to understand China’s stance towards the Natuna Islands and its EEZ. There is ambiguity here.

The spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeatedly argued that the Natuna Islands belong to Indonesia without mentioning the EEZ and the nine-dash line. She also claimed that the fishing boat was in “Chinese traditional fishing grounds” and did not enter Indonesian waters.

Indonesia, in turn, has never recognised the nine-dash line. From the Indonesian point of view, since China and Indonesia are both signatories of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they hence recognise the EEZ formula, which in effect entitles the Natuna Islands to 200 nautical miles of the EEZ. Indonesia assumes that China accepts this EEZ, based on Indonesian ownership of the islands.

For this reason, both Beijing and Jakarta repeatedly claim that “there is no territorial dispute” between them. However, the Global Times article openly stated that, in fact, there is a dispute over the Natuna EEZ as “its overlaps with the nine-dash line (of China)”.

The article, therefore, openly raised the issue of Indonesian sovereignty around the Natuna. Will Beijing and Jakarta openly argue the issue of the EEZ? Or will both sides continue to keep things ambiguous?


According to Ms Susi Pudjiastuti, the Maritime and Fishery Minister, this is not the first time a Chinese fishing boat has entered Natuna waters. On March 26, 2013, Indonesia stopped a Chinese fishing boat from fishing in the Indonesian waters. Even in that incident, the boat escaped thanks to intervention from the Chinese coast guard.

At the time, both Jakarta and Beijing handled matters quietly. This time around, though, Ms Pudjiastuti openly accused the Chinese fishing boat of stealing fish, and criticised the Chinese coast guard for intrusion and intervention in Indonesian waters.

She summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta. Ms Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, also summoned the ambassador to explain the behaviour of the Chinese coast guard. Even the Minister of Defence Ryamizard Ryacudu, a retired general, expressed his wish to summon China’s envoy.

According to diplomatic protocol, only the Foreign Minister can call in the Chinese ambassador, so this suggests a lack of co-ordination in the Joko (Jokowi) Widodo government.

Notably, Mr Ryacudu had refused to link the incident to China’s assertive claims in the South China Sea. He said it was possible that the Chinese coast guard acted without the instructions of the Chinese government.

He noted: “We know very well that the army should be well disciplined, but there are always members of the army who are undisciplined. It is possible that the incident was caused by undisciplined personnel within the army. Therefore I would like to (seek clarification from) the Chinese ambassador myself.”

The March 2016 incident nonetheless attracted a lot of public attention in Indonesia. Beijing’s response angered many among the Indonesian elite. Jakarta newspapers published editorials and reports critical of Beijing. The majority condemned the Chinese coast guard vessel for encroaching into Indonesian waters and urged the Indonesian government to be firm in protecting Indonesian territorial integrity.

Tempo called China’s behaviour “arrogant”, while Republika noted that this was a test for Indonesia-China relations. The People’s Coalition for Fishery Justice (Koalisi Rakyat untuk Keadilan Perikanan) stated that after this incident, China had become the “common enemy of ASEAN”.

In Parliament, members were critical of China, and the defence and foreign affairs committee wanted Mr Widodo to manage the issue personally, arguing that Chinese boats encroaching on Natuna waters should be seen as an indication that Beijing wants to lay claim over the area. The Indonesian Parliament approved a budget for developing military facilities in the Natuna Islands and the navy stated it had strengthened its presence there. It was noted that the authorities were intending to transform Natuna into a “Pearl Harbour”.

Then on April 13, barely a month after the incident that sparked the Indonesian outburst, the head of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, Song Tao, visited President Joko Widodo. Soon after the meeting, Mr Pramono Anung, the Indonesian Cabinet Secretary, told the media that “the matter is considered to have been settled and it is also considered as a misunderstanding.”

There was no explanation on the process of settlement. However, Mr Pramono said both sides agreed that the South China Sea issue “would be settled peacefully without the involvement of outsiders”. He also believed that “in the future, China and Indonesia will respect each other’s territorial waters”.

There is nothing explicit in the statement, and it is odd that it was made not through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but the Cabinet Secretary.

The Jakarta Post reported that “Mr Pramono said the incident had been settled after Beijing acknowledged Indonesian’s full sovereignty over the Natuna waters”. It was also reported that “Jakarta and Beijing expressed a strong desire to improve relations at all levels”.

It would seem that the Natuna incident has been settled, at least for the time being, and that both sides prefer to keep their stance on the EEZ and the nine-dash line ambiguous.

As long as China does not challenge Indonesian sovereignty openly, the situation can be managed. How long this ambiguous stance can be kept, however, remains unclear.


Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This piece was adapted from a longer piece in ISEAS Perspective.

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