Beijing must back off in Natuna

Beijing must back off in Natuna

The year 2020 kicked off with not-so-good news for Indonesia. Floods battered Jakarta, causing heavy casualties. Then the country's North Natuna Sea saw a fleet of vessels from China carrying out illegal fishing operations in an area designated as Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

It must be noted that those unwelcome vessels were escorted by the Chinese coast guard. In the past, there were several incidents which saw foreign fishing vessels -- including those from Thailand -- illegally entering Indonesian waters, but these were private operators. Indonesia could stick to regular law enforcement channels to respond to such incidents.

With the presence of Chinese coast guard vessels -- and by extension, state authority -- it is an entirely different and more complicated matter.

The presence of Chinese coast guard ships suggested Beijing had intended to challenge Indonesia's sovereign rights in the North Natuna Sea. As such, a different approach is needed in addition to regular maritime law enforcement. Indonesia, in fact, should consider this as a threat to its national security.

Under international law, the North Natuna Sea is a part of Indonesia's EEZ, which accords Indonesia the sovereign right to fish and obtain natural resources in these waters. Foreign fishing vessels must get permission from Indonesian authorities before fishing in the EEZ -- otherwise, their operations are illegal.

China's claims in the area are based on an illegal "Nine-dash Line", which they claim shows the limits of their traditional fishing grounds in the area. However, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2016 that the claim has no basis under international law. As Indonesia has international law on its side, it should take action against illegal Chinese fishing operations in the North Natuna Sea.

At this point, Indonesia has no other choice but to show China that the country, as a sovereign nation, will protect its sovereign rights at sea. It should fully deploy its coast guard and dispatch other necessary military support to the North Natuna Sea. Such a response is not only in line with the law, but it also sends a strong signal to China that Indonesia is not taking the matter lightly.

Soon after the Chinese coast guard ships illegally entered Indonesia's EEZ, Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi summoned China's Ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, to lodge an official diplomatic note of protest. Unfortunately, Beijing doesn't seem to be taking the complaint seriously -- a real humiliation for Indonesia, and the country shouldn't stand for it.

Some have argued that this isn't the time to bring China back to the negotiating table. Instead, they said that Indonesia should send a stronger message that it is ready to protect every inch of Indonesia's sovereign jurisdiction, on land and at sea.

This incident might prove to be a challenge to newly appointed Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, who is widely regarded as a fervent nationalist eager to protect Indonesia's national interests.

However, as the public waits to see what Indonesia's next response to the situation will be, the Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Investment, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, seems to have taken a softer stance. Instead of seeing the case as a threat to Indonesian interests and sovereign rights, he said that Indonesia should take careful steps to avoid raising tensions, as harsh responses might disrupt Chinese investments.

This incident is not unprecedented. In 2016, the Indonesian navy shot at a Chinese fishing vessel on the North Natuna Sea, and after the dramatic shooting, President Joko Widodo himself led a ministerial meeting on a warship in the Natuna Sea. This showed that Indonesia is really serious in protecting its sovereign rights. In making such a response, we are respecting and complying with the rule of international law.

Indonesia should really teach China that the country needs to comply with international laws as the country will not tolerate any violation to its sovereign rights and interests.

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is lecturer and researcher at the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the Faculty of Law, Universitas Indonesia and Fellow at the Center for Politics and Transnationalism at Policylab.

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