Indonesia’s navy yesterday said that poaching by Chinese trawlers in its waters was a “ruse” to stake Beijing’s claim to fishing grounds, after the latest clash in the South China Sea.
The confrontation on Friday last week near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands was the third such skirmish in the area this year between Chinese and Indonesian vessels. Indonesian warships fired warning shots at a group of foreign vessels allegedly fishing illegally and detained a Chinese-flagged boat and seven crewmembers.
Beijing protested after the clash and said one fisherman was injured, but Jakarta has said none of the detained crew was hurt.
The commander of the Indonesian navy’s western fleet said that he suspected the incursions were “structured,” indicating the Chinese government had “given its blessing” because the vessels were guarded.
“China protested because it thinks this area is theirs,” Indonesian Rear Admiral Achmad Taufiqoerrochman told reporters in Jakarta.
“Actually the [fish] stealing is just a ruse to stake its claim,” he said, referring to allegations that Chinese vessels regularly fish illegally in Indonesian waters near the Natunas. “They need a presence and their way to do it is with fishing boats.”
“We need to resolve this issue. If not, they will make a one-sided claim to the waters,” he said.
Unlike several of its Southeast Asian neighbors, the Indonesian government has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea. It has no overlapping claims with China to islets or reefs there.
However, Beijing’s claim to fishing rights near the Natunas, about 3,000km from Chinese shores, appears to overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the islands.
China has said it recognizes Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands themselves.
Following Friday’s clash, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China and Indonesia have overlapping claims for maritime rights and interests” in the area, a statement which analysts said was significant as it openly acknowledged the existence of a dispute.
Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said it was “a shift in the existing position of just calling it traditional fishing grounds.”
“It suggests that it [Beijing] doesn’t recognize Indonesia’s claim to that exclusive economic zone,” he said.
Confrontations between Indonesian and Chinese vessels near the Natunas have escalated since Jakarta launched a crackdown on illegal fishing in 2014.
Indonesian Minister for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti yesterday said the government has detained 57 ships in around the Natunas this year for illegal fishing.
Of those, three were Chinese boats and 49 were Vietnamese, she said.
“We don’t discriminate just because they’re Chinese,” she said. “Whether they’re Thai, Chinese, even American fishermen, we would detain them just the same. Good neighbors shouldn’t steal.”
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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