The South China Sea, already one of the most tense areas of the world, became more dangerous last month. The well-known problems revolve around China's aggressive insistence that it owns every island and shoal and pretty well every square kilometre of seabed.
Beijing has continuously refused to either negotiate its claims with littoral countries that have legitimate territorial claims of their own. Manila and Hanoi have recently taken strong steps to counter China. And now Indonesia, for a different reason, has escalated the tension needlessly.
Citing a 2009 law passed by the Indonesian parliament, Jakarta's Security Affairs Minister Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno last month ordered the scuttling of three Vietnamese fishing trawlers captured earlier in Indonesian waters. Two weeks later, authorities blew up and sank two fishing boats from Papua New Guinea. On Dec 28, two of five Thai fishing boats being held by Indonesian marine police were sunk. On each of these occasions, the Indonesian media was invited along to watch.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo claimed that the destruction of the fishing boats would "teach them a lesson, so that they will give up poaching in Indonesian waters". Sinking the vessels, he said, was "shock therapy". He claimed in an interview with the foreign media that Indonesia loses US$20 billion (659 billion baht) a year from the illegal fishing activities of foreign companies, boats and trawlers.
That figure is hardly credible, and only detracts from President Widodo's valid argument. Foreign fishermen, including Thais, certainly do not have the right to intrude into Indonesian territory. But Indonesia hardly "loses" much, since the foreigners only are taking what Indonesian fishermen cannot. Like other piracy figures, this one is both largely bogus and highly distracting from the main issues at hand.
The first is obvious enough. The Indonesia president claims that "around 5,400 boats" fish illegally in his country's waters every day. Simply put, Indonesia is incapable of enforcing its own laws, and protecting its own territory. This is not a shock because Indonesia is a huge archipelago with 18,307 islands. But the answer to Indonesia's own inability to protect its assets is hardly to apply such severe punishment to the foreigners violating its waters.
The governments of Thailand and Vietnam have not responded to these outrageous acts by the Indonesian authorities. But they should. Jakarta should know that such aggressively destructive action is unwelcome, undiplomatic and frankly unfriendly towards its Asean partners and neighbours. Jakarta has deprived at least two Thai and three Vietnamese fishing crews of chances to earn livelihoods.
The acts verge on invitations to retaliation. Perhaps Vietnamese authorities, for example, will begin stripping the assets of Indonesians who violate local laws. In Thailand, almost as many foreign fishing vessels violate our waters as Thai boats fish illegally in other countries' waters. In the past few years, authorities have seized hundreds of boats for violating Thai territory. The most common violators come from Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.
Indonesia, like its nine partners, has a duty to help protect Asean unity ahead of the regional bloc's integration into the Asean Economic Community. This new plan by President Widodo to enforce the law by employing destructive violence actually harms that unity. The president claims that, "This is a purely criminal issue and has nothing to do with neighbourly relations". He is wrong.
Jakarta has effectively joined Beijing as a country unwilling to discuss disputes of territorial integrity. Seizing and destroying foreign fishing boats, especially from a valued neighbour, is an unfriendly act. Indonesia needs to pause and discuss this problem diplomatically, or risk a strike back.