Behind Indonesia’s sinking of neighbors’ fishing vessels

Disputed waters of the South China Sea. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Besides the celebrations for winning an Olympic gold medal in the mixed-double badminton event, Indonesia marked its 71st independence day by sinking 60 foreign fishing vessels as an effort to tackle illegal fishing in the Indonesian waters.

Vessels belonging to China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines were submerged in eight separate locations. Initial plans from the Indonesian government was to sink seventy one foreign vessels, however, the number was eventually revised down to sixty.

Ever since Indonesian president Joko Widodo took office in 2014, the country’s enforcement of territorial rights over its waters have increased dramatically, as the Indonesian forces have sunk about two hundred ships over the last two years, including twenty three Vietnamese and Malaysian vessels drowned in April 2016. The sinking of fishing boats is part of the Indonesian government’s effort to send a strong signal to the violators of the country’s territorial waters as part of an effective deterrent strategy. Indonesia loses about $20 billion of yearly fishing revenues due to illicit fishing in its waters.

The sinking of the fishing vessels came at a time when the South China Sea remains a hot topic of geopolitics drawing global attentions. Although Indonesia is not engaged in international court battles with China or its neighbors regarding claims over the South China Sea, the relationship between Indonesia and China did get strained after the Indonesian Navy shot Chinese fishing vessels near Natuna Islands in June 2016, injuring one fisherman, as claimed by the Chinese authorities. China maintains that its fishermen were catching fish in an area with overlapping territorial claims with Indonesia. For its part, Indonesia acknowledged the encounter, but denied inflicting any serious injury to the Chinese fisher man.

June’s shooting in Natuna Islands was the third incident involving China and Indonesia this year.

An Overview of the South China Sea Disputes

China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei have long been engaged in duplicative claims over specific areas within the South China Sea. The Paracels and the Spratlys Islands are two chains of islands that are at the heart of this territorial conflict, thanks to their abundant mineral and energy resources. These islands offer vast sandbanks, atolls, rocky outcrops, as well as coral reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.

Beijing’s claim over the two islands is based on a 1947 map where the Paracels and the Spratlys Islands are shown as Chinese territories. Beijing also claims that the largest part of the South China Sea, a geography detailed by a nine-dash line stretching hundreds of miles south and east from China’s Hainan province, is also Chinese territory. Other countries in the region proclaim that China lacks sufficient claims over these waters. The fact that the nine-dash line on the map does not even have coordinates does not help clarify matters any better.

There are ambiguities in Chinese claims as to whether China only wants land mass within the nine-dash line, or both land and waters.

Vietnam strongly opposes the Chinese claims over the islands, saying Beijing had never claimed its sovereignty over these before the 1940s. Vietnam has also produced documents indicating that the country has been active in the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th century.

The Philippines is another of the main claimants arguing that the nine-dash line claimed by China is invalid because it is against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea “UNCLOS” agreements regarding  Exclusive Economic Zones (“EEZ”) and territorial seas.

Both the Philippines and China have competing claims over the Scarborough Shoal also known as Huangyan Island in China, which is about 100 miles away  from the Philippines and 500 miles from the mainland China.

Malaysia and Brunei have lodged overlapping claims over territories in the South China Sea that they consider within their economic exclusion zones, as detailed by UNCLOS. Although Brunei has no claims over any of the disputed islands, Malaysia claims a small number of the islands located in the Spratlys.

Claims and counterclaims over the South China Sea have already given birth to several joint naval excercises and war games played by competing countries and alliances.

Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims

On July 2016, an international tribunal rejected China’s claims over the nine-dotted line region within the South China Sea, opining that China has no legal and historical basis over that geography, and that the Chinese claims violate the Philippines’ sovereignty. This ruling came as a slap in the wrist of the Chinese regarding their recent maneuvers in the region.

However, the tribunal ruling could not stop China from mobilizing its military following a live-fire drills in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 22, 2016. China has also warned Japan not to push  Beijing too hard in light of the Hague ruling. Beijing proclaims it is not bound the by the international tribunal rulings.

The Hague ruling provides Indonesia legal standings to bar the Chinese fishing boats from the Indonesian waters labeling these regions as “Exclusive Economic Zones”. China argued in the Hague that the disputed Indonesian waters have been used by Chinese fishing vehicles for very long, however, the court took the view that historically China had never exercised its exclusive rights over the area.

Settling maritime boundaries continues to be a tricky affair in the South China Sea, as there are differences in perspectives among the regional players whether the Exclusive Economic Zones (“EEZ”) should accompany continental boundary shelfs or not.  For example, Indonesia wants Malaysia to agree on both EEZ and a continental boundary shelf on the eastern part of the Natuna Islands. However, Malaysia agrees on continental boundary shelf only.

 What lies ahead?

It will be prudent for the states in the South China Sea dispute to focus on finding cooperative management of the disputed areas in the sea as opposed to perpetuating their territorial conflict. There are ways these countries could work together to manage the sea’s natural resources, support marine research, boost safety, and protect the environment — going above and beyond tribunals and arbitration panels.

ASEAN member countries are expected to take such peace initiatives among the conflicting members within the organization.

Despite being a non-claimant in the South China Sea proceedings, the United States has serious geopolitical interests in the region, and its warships are present monitoring China’s military maneuvers in these disputed waters. United States has not yet become a signatory of the UNCLOS, and there arguments  in favor of it doing so.

Given the presence of nationalistic fervor as seen during the fishing vessel burning indecent in Indonesia, and the presence of major sea powers with all their military hardware, the South China Sea will continue to be the topic of serious geopolitical development in days to come.

About Yasmeen Rasidi 3 Articles
Yasmeen Rasidi is a Staff Writer for The GeoStrategists. She focuses on the Asia Pacific and the Middle East region. Yasmeen had worked for Xinhua Indonesia previously. She writes from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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