Yet again, trouble is brewing in the South China Sea, after Indonesia seized a Chinese fishing boat over the weekend, only to see it rammed free, hours later by China’s Coast Guard.
The incident began at 10 p.m. on Saturday when a special task Indonesian vessel spotted the Chinese fishing boat illegally fishing within Indonesia’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands, The New York Times reports. They seized the vessel, the Kway Fey, and took the crew into custody.
As they towed the Kway Fey back to port a Chinese Coast Guard vessel followed behind. At around midnight, just inside of Indonesia’s territorial waters, the Coast Guard ship rammed the fishing boat in an apparent attempt to get the Indonesian sailors to release it, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry said. It worked.
“To prevent anything else occurring, the Indonesian authorities let go of the Chinese boat and then left toward Natuna, still with eight fishermen and the captain on board,” said Arrmanatha Nasir, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry.
Jakarta has responded to the incident with a surprising amount of public outrage. On Monday morning, the minister counselor of China’s Embassy in Jakarta was summoned and given an official letter of protest regarding the confrontation. The ambassador himself was out of the country.
Meanwhile, Indonesia’s maritime and fisheries minister, Susi Podjiastuti, held a press conference where he labeled the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions as “arrogant.”
This response stands in stark contrast to Indonesia’s response to its last major confrontation with China in the South China Sea. Back in March 2013, an Indonesian vessel seized a Chinese fishing boat illegally fishing near the same region off Natuna. Just hours later, the Indonesian ship was met by an armed Chinese vessel that demanded the release of the boat and crew. The Indonesian captain agreed and the incident has rarely been brought up since.
China is one of Indonesia’s largest trading partners, the two countries have also recently signed a multi-billion dollar agreement for a China-built high-speed railway connecting Jakarta and Bandung. Thus far, the project has been marked by delays and protests.
In response to Indonesia’s anger, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said at a regular Monday press conference that the incident had taken place inside “traditional Chinese fishing grounds” and also denied that the Coast Guard vessel had ever crossed over into Indonesian waters.
“China immediately requested Indonesia to release the detained Chinese fishermen and ensure their physical safety,” Hua added. “It is hoped that the Indonesian side would bear in mind the general picture of bilateral relations and properly handle this incident.”
Earlier today, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi came out to say that Indonesia still hopes to maintain good relations with China, despite the incident, the Jakarta Post reports.
This incident follows, of course, numerous incidents in the South China Sea between China and other claimants — Vietnam and the Philippines — as well as the United States and Australia, all concerned about China’s rapidly expanding (and militarizing) Great Wall of Sand.
However, it also comes less than a week after a similar incident occurring on the other side of the world, off the coast of Argentina, in which an Argentine Coast Guard vessel spotted a Chinese fishing ship illegally fishing inside its special economic zone. Without China’s Coast Guard to save it, the fishing vessel attempted to capsize itself and was sunk in defense by Argentina.
China has ordered an investigation into the incident — which presumably did not occur in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”