Confronting Beijing’s ‘little blue men’: Indonesia’s South China Sea dilemma

(From The National Interest)

By Amelia Long

For the third time this year, the Indonesian navy has faced off against Chinese fishing vessels trawling within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding the Natuna Islands. The latest incident occurred on 17 June when an Indonesian warship pursued and fired warning shots at the Chinese vessels, which were ultimately confiscated and their crews detained.

Indonesian Navy frigate

Indonesian Navy frigate

Indonesia and China continue to butt heads on official interpretations of the incident. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi used the aftermath of the spat to reiterate Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea issue: as Indonesia shares no overlapping territorial waters with China, it’ll remain a non-claimant state. China’s foreign ministry took an alternative view, stating that ‘China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests’ in the waters surrounding the Natunas. As Beijing expands upon its claim that those waters are a ‘traditional Chinese fishing ground’ and Indonesian lawmakers urge the government take a firmer stance on the disputed waters, it’s important that the Indonesian government actively canvasses its options.

Currently Indonesia appears to stubbornly stick to a position of ‘hollow neutrality’. This is fundamentally a ‘see no China’ policy wherein it rejects the notion of provoking or confronting China over contested waters. Regardless of whether Indonesia continues down this path, it’s likely that the number of incursions will continue to rise within the boundaries of Indonesia’s EEZ—especially as the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) prepares to hand down its ruling on the Philippines v. China case. In other words, China will continue to take advantage of Indonesia’s uncertain posture. China’s acknowledgment of overlapping claims indicates that perhaps Beijing doesn’t see the waters off the Natunas as part of Indonesia’s EEZ, which aggressively expands its previous claim that the area is a ‘traditional fishing ground.’ The now-disputed waters have the potential to increasingly become a hotspot where China can demonstrate its resolve. Read more


Categories: Asia Times News & Features, Indonesia, Southeast Asia

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