Chinese incursions and diplomatic exchanges
Between 19 and 24 December 2019, the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) reported that 63 Chinese fishing vessels, escorted by two Chinese coast guard vessels and one frigate encroached Indonesia’s Natuna EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). They refused a Bakamla vessel’s request to leave, insisting that they were fishing in their own “territorial waters”. The Bakamla ship was unable to do much beyond reporting the incursion to the relevant Indonesian ministries.
On 30 December 2019, after consulting various ministries, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry issued a letter of protest, noting that “there were violations in the Indonesian EEZ, including IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing activities and violations of sovereignty by China’s Coast Guard in Natuna waters”. The ministry summoned Xiao Qian, Beijing’s ambassador in Jakarta, to lodge a strong protest over the encroachment.
On 31 December 2019, Geng Shuang, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, in his regular press conference, responded to the Indonesian protest: “China has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands [i.e. Spratly islands] and has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters near the Nansha Islands. In the meantime, China has historical rights in the South China Seas. Chinese fishermen have long been engaging in fishery activities in relevant waters near the Nansha Islands, which has long been legal and legitimate. The China Coastal Guards were performing their duty by carrying out patrol to maintain maritime order and protect our people’s legitimate rights and interests in the relevant waters. Our ambassador to Indonesia reiterated China’s consistent position to the Indonesian side.”
Geng Shuang added: “China would like to work with Indonesia to continue managing disputes properly through bilateral dialogue, and to maintain friendly cooperation as well as peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry rejected China’s reply, pointing out on 1 January 2020 that there is no legal basis for historical rights with regard to the Natuna EEZ, as it is under the Indonesian sovereignty in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS, which was signed by both Jakarta and Beijing. Indonesia also rejected the term “relevant waters”, a notion not found in any legal document and which therefore has no legal basis. The foreign ministry further reiterated that Indonesia did not have any overlapping jurisdiction with China and that Jakarta would “never recognise China’s nine-dash line because it is contrary to UNCLOS in accordance with the 2016 tribunal’s ruling”.
On 2 January, Geng Shuang responded to the Indonesian Ministry statement: “I want to stress that China's position and propositions comply with international law, including UNCLOS. So whether the Indonesian side accepts it or not, nothing will change the objective fact that China has rights and interests over the relevant waters. The so-called award of the South China Sea arbitration is illegal, null and void and we have long made it clear that China neither accepts nor recognises it. The Chinese side firmly opposes any country, organisation or individual using the invalid arbitration award to hurt China's interests.”
... if China’s fishing boats were fishing in the Indonesian EEZ, then that would be a violation of international law.
As late as 6 January, Chinese coast guard vessels were still operating in Natuna waters 130 nautical miles away from Ranai (capital of Natuna Besar), despite being asked to leave the Indonesian EEZ. The Indonesian parliament condemned the encroachment of Chinese vessels into Natuna waters, and the Indonesian press began to report on the escalation of tension. One scholar even asked the government to recall the Indonesian ambassador in Beijing and review all projects with China. The Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Mahfud MD, stated that the incident was a violation of Indonesian sovereignty and Indonesia would not negotiate with China on the EEZ issue.
However, Prabowo Subianto, the Indonesian Defense Minister, asked for calm, stating that Jakarta was looking for a peaceful solution. He added that “China is an Indonesian friend”. Luhut Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Foreign Investment, an influential retired general who is President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s confidante, also said that people should not exaggerate the incident. He noted that China did not intend to clash with Indonesia, and Indonesia should not do anything if the matter was about Chinese coast guard vessels transiting the Indonesian Natuna EEZ as this was allowed by international law; but if China’s fishing boats were fishing in the Indonesian EEZ, then that would be a violation of international law.
It appears that the two Indonesian ministers were trying to de-escalate the conflict. Nevertheless, on 6 January 2020, President Jokowi stated that “there is no room for negotiation with any country as the Natuna and its EEZ belong solely to Indonesia”. But China was not mentioned by name in the statement.
Mahfud appealed to local Indonesian fishermen and those from other areas to fish in the Natuna waters so that their presence would deter foreign fishing vessels from coming.
On 8 January 2020, Geng Shuang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, was reported to have said: “I'd like to stress that China and Indonesia don't have disputes over territorial sovereignty (领土主权争议, lingtu zhuquan zhengyi). We have overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests in some areas in the South China Sea. China hopes Indonesia will remain calm. We would like to handle our differences with Indonesia in a proper way and uphold our bilateral relations as well as peace and stability in the region. In fact, we have been in contact with each other on this issue through diplomatic channels.”
On the same day, President Jokowi visited Natuna Besar, and reasserted his strong commitment to defend the Indonesian EEZ. It was reported that the Chinese fishing vessels and coast guard vessels also left Natuna waters after the president’s visit.
To prevent any future incursions, the Indonesian Navy consequently increased its presence in the Natuna waters. On 15 January 2020, one week after President Jokowi’s visit, Mahfud MD and the new Maritime Affairs and Fishery Minister Edy Prabowo, visited Natuna Besar. Mahfud appealed to local Indonesian fishermen and those from other areas to fish in the Natuna waters so that their presence would deter foreign fishing vessels from coming. Apparently, not many Indonesian fishing boats have been fishing in that area. Mahfud also stated that Indonesian fishing boats would be protected by the Indonesian Navy while they were fishing. The Indonesian navy spokesman also assured them that the Chinese fishing vessels would be detained if they returned to the Natuna waters.
The Natuna issue during the Jokowi presidency
During the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) presidency, there had not been many incidents, with captured Chinese ships often released after behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
By the time Jokowi became president in October 2014, the number of incursions by foreign fishing vessels had increased to the extent that Jakarta became concerned about its sovereignty. This was manifestly the case after Susi Pudjiastuti became Maritime Affairs and Fishery Minister. She decided on a tougher policy and foreign vessels involved in illegal fishing within the Indonesian EEZ were confiscated and many were eventually sunk.
She also began to focus attention on the Indonesian Natuna EEZ. On 19 March 2016, an Indonesian patrol boat detained a Chinese fishing vessel which encroached into Natuna waters. However, a Chinese coast guard vessel quickly appeared and rammed the Indonesian patrol boat to free the Chinese fishing boat. Minister Pujiastuti announced this episode to the press and protested to Beijing. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry responded by stating that the Chinese fishermen were doing their regular work on their “traditional fishing grounds”.
The incident immediately became a national issue and Indonesian public opinion became hostile toward China. China quickly and quietly sent a special envoy to see Jokowi, bypassing the Foreign Ministry. The Jokowi spokesman subsequently announced that it was a misunderstanding and the dispute was temporarily settled. On 27 May 2016, about two months after the incident, another incursion occurred. Jakarta protested, and Beijing responded using the same argument. This time, Jokowi was forced to show that he was serious about defending Indonesia’s sovereignty. He visited the Natunas in a naval warship with several of his cabinet ministers and held a limited cabinet meeting on the warship. The Indonesian parliament discussed the Natuna issue and approved a budget for developing a military base in the Natunas. On 17 June 2016, there was yet another incursion but this time the Indonesian navy was well prepared and succeeded in detaining China’s fishing vessel.
Thereafter, the Natuna waters saw no incident for about three and a half years...It is unclear why the sudden escalation of Chinese activities in the Natuna EEZ occurred in December 2019.
Jakarta began developing the military base in the Natunas and increased the number of military personnel. In 2017, it renamed the waters of the South China Seas within the EEZ of Indonesia as the Northern Natuna Sea. Beijing protests over the name change was ignored by Jakarta. Thereafter, the Natuna waters saw no incident for about three and a half years.
It is unclear why the sudden escalation of Chinese activities in the Natuna EEZ occurred in December 2019; Chinese fishing vessels began to appear in much larger numbers than before. One observer suggested that China wanted to use the uncertainty in the United States to assert its hegemony in the South China Sea while others argued that Beijing just wanted to test the new Jokowi Administration, which was preoccupied with economic growth and with moving the Indonesian capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan. The timing is indeed interesting, coming as it did after the departure of Susi Pujiastuti as Maritime Affairs and Fishery Minister, and also after Defense Minister Prabowo’s visit to Beijing on 15-17 December 2019.
China is now openly claiming that parts of the Natuna waters is under China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction.
Although Prabowo is known to be hawkish, his initial response to the Chinese incursion was conciliatory. So was that of Luhut Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment. It seems that both wanted to de-escalate the tensions in the Natunas as Indonesian nationalism was rising and the Jokowi administration did not want it to divert its focus from economic development. Luhut could have been more concerned with the economic situation and attracting Chinese investment since he now oversees the investment portfolio. China was also responsive to these gestures. Its ambassador in Jakarta told the press that the Natuna incident would not affect Chinese investment in Indonesia.
Shifting arguments from both sides?
It is clear from Chinese Foreign Ministry statements before and after the incursion in December 2019 that China is now openly claiming that parts of the Natuna waters is under China’s sovereignty and jurisdiction. China reaffirmed that it has historical rights over Nanhai (South China Sea) and “relevant waters near the Nansha islands”, and that those waters are Chinese historical fishing areas. Before the December 2019 incursion, Chinese Foreign Ministry had continuously used “traditional fishing grounds” as the basis for the presence of Chinese fishing vessels.
It appears that China recognises Indonesian sovereignty over the Natuna Islands and its 12 nautical miles of the territorial waters, but not the Indonesian EEZ which extends to 200 nautical miles.
Throughout Chinese Foreign Ministry responses to Indonesia, it is noteworthy that China never used the term “the nine-dash line”. The term used instead was “historical rights”. Of course, many observers would immediately be reminded of “the nine-dash line”, which uses history as the basis for claiming 90% of the South China Sea. The concept of the nine-dash line was rejected by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling for contradicting the 1982 UNCLOS convention. China strongly rejected the Tribunal’s ruling for being “biased and illegal” and deplored Indonesia using the ruling to refute China’s claims. Interestingly, in one of its responses to Indonesia (made on 2 January 2020), China claimed that Beijing’s position and propositions “comply with international law and UNCLOS”.
China has insisted that it has no “territorial dispute over sovereignty” (领土主权争议, lingtu zhuquan zhengyi) with Jakarta, but only overlapping claims over parts of the Natuna waters. It appears that China recognises Indonesian sovereignty over the Natuna Islands and its 12 nautical miles of the territorial waters, but not the Indonesian EEZ which extends to 200 nautical miles.
For Jakarta, Indonesian sovereignty includes the Natunas, its 12 nautical mile territorial waters and its 200 nautical mile EEZ. This sovereignty is acknowledged in the UNCLOS Convention signed by both Jakarta and Beijing. Indonesia therefore considers the presence of the Chinese fishing vessels and coast guards in the Natuna EEZ as an infringement of Indonesian sovereignty.
In fact, in July 2010, Indonesian diplomats wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General questioning the legal basis of the nine-dash line. It argued that the nine-dash line violated the UNCLOS Convention of which China is one of the signatories and hence cannot be accepted. Indonesia also requested the Secretary General to circulate the letter to all UN members. China chose not to respond to the letter.
Jakarta rejected Beijing’s sovereignty, and for the first time, made a reference to the Tribunal’s ruling.
Interestingly, when the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling was announced, which dismissed the legal basis of the nine-dash line, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry adopted a neutral stance. It merely stated that Indonesia would uphold UNCLOS principles and did not refer to the Tribunal’s ruling. However, Jakarta shifted its stand after the December 2019 incursion, and invoked the Tribunal’s ruling. This irritated Beijing.
The incursions of December 2019 mark new developments on the Natuna issue. Beijing has changed its position and now claims to have “sovereign rights and jurisdiction over relevant waters near the Nansha Islands (i.e. parts of the Natuna EEZ)”. It is no longer an issue of “traditional fishing grounds”.
Jakarta rejected Beijing’s sovereignty, and for the first time, made a reference to the Tribunal’s ruling. The December 2019 incident also hardened the Indonesian stand and accelerated Indonesian military build-up in the Natuna waters. If and when another encroachment takes place, an open clash could occur, and anti-China and anti-ethnic Chinese sentiments in Indonesia would again be whipped up.
This article was first published as ISEAS Perspective 2020/10 - "Recent Chinese Moves in the Natunas Riles Indonesia" by Leo Suryadinata.