JAKARTA/BEIJING – Indonesia “feels sabotaged” in its efforts to maintain peace in the disputed South China Sea and may bring its latest maritime altercation with China to an international court, a minister said Monday.
Indonesia is not embroiled in rival claims with China over the South China Sea and has instead seen itself as an “honest broker” in disputes between China and the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
But an incident over the weekend involving an Indonesian patrol boat, and a Chinese coast guard vessel and fishing boat in what Indonesia said was its waters has angered Jakarta and led to its questioning of its work to promote peace.
“We feel interrupted and sabotaged in our efforts,” fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti told reporters in the capital after meeting Chinese Embassy officials to discuss the incident in the Natuna Sea, an area between Peninsular Malaysia and the Malaysian province of Sarawak on Borneo island.
“We may take it to the international tribunal of the law of the sea,” Pudjiastuti said.
Pudjiastuti said the Indonesia patrol boat had fired warning shots in the air when it approached the Chinese trawler.
Indonesia’s deputy navy chief, Arie Henrycus Sembiring, told the news conference the navy would send bigger vessels to back up its patrol boats in the region.
Indonesia says one of its patrol boats on Saturday attempted to detain a Chinese boat fishing illegally in its waters. Eight Chinese crew members were detained but the Chinese coast guard prevented Indonesia from confiscating the fishing boat.
On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry repeated that the fishing boat was operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds,” again demanded the fishermen be released and added the Chinese coast guard vessel did not enter Indonesian waters.
China and Indonesia do not contest the sovereignty of the Natuna Islands and the seas around them: both agree they are part of Indonesia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated that Monday.
“The sovereignty of the Natunas belongs to Indonesia. China has no objections to this,” Hua told a regular briefing.
Any maritime disputes should be resolved by talks and China also opposes illegal fishing, Hua said.
Earlier Monday, Indonesia protested to China against what it described as an infringement of its waters by the Chinese coast guard vessel.
“We conveyed our strong protest (over) … the breach by the Chinese coast guard of Indonesia’s sovereign rights,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters after she met Chinese Embassy representatives in Jakarta.
Pudjiastuti said the eight detained Chinese fishermen would be processed in accordance with Indonesian law.
Indonesia is not a claimant in the disputed South China Sea, but has raised concerns over China’s inclusion of the resource-rich Natunas in its “nine-dash line,” an ambiguous demarcation of Beijing’s claims to a major portion of the waters.
Beijing clarified its stance on the Natunas late last year after Jakarta’s security chief said that Indonesia could take China before an international court if the dispute over waters near the islands could not be resolved through dialogue.
Dave McRae, a researcher at the University of Melbourne in Australia, said that this was not the first time Chinese state agencies had intervened when Indonesia attempted to take custody of a Chinese fishing vessel near the Natunas, but that it was likely the first such incident since China’s statement in November.
In March 2013, armed Chinese vessels confronted an Indonesian fisheries patrol boat and demanded the release of Chinese fishermen who had been apprehended in Natuna waters.
Similarly, in 2010, a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel compelled an Indonesian patrol boat to release another illegal Chinese trawler. Tensions between the two sides do flare every now and then, usually over Chinese fishing boats.
“I think Indonesia’s fisheries ministry will be hoping that by publicizing this incident and summoning China’s ambassador, they can prevent a reoccurrence of a similar incident,” McRae said.
“It has been a catch cry of the Jokowi government that it will defend Indonesian sovereignty, including highly publicized ship sinkings, to combat illegal fishing,” he added, referring to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.
Still, McRae said, Jakarta’s maritime capabilities leave it at a comparative disadvantage in taking on its bigger neighbor.
“There are real limits to Indonesia’s ability to patrol its waters, giving it an incentive to try to dissuade Chinese vessels diplomatically on top of any enforcement efforts,” he said.