Trouble has flared up once again in the South China Sea as the Indonesian navy continues its crusade against Chinese boats fishing in “traditional Chinese waters.”
On June 18th, an Indonesian navy warship arrested a Chinese fishing boat crew of seven for fishing “illegally” within Indonesia’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands.
According to SCMP, maritime air surveillance officials reported that “foreign vessels” were illegally working in the Natuna sea. First Admiral Edi Scucipto of the Indonesian corvette KRI Imam Bonjol-383 responded by approaching the fleet of “foreign fishing boats”. The twelve trawlers maneuvered to flee from the warship as it fired warning shots at the scurrying boats. However, one of the fishing boats stopped escaping and was revealed to be manned entirely by Chinese citizens, one female and six males. The whole crew and its vessel was promptly detained by the corvette.
In response, China’s Foreign Ministry condemned the Indonesian navy for its “excessive use of force”. According to the Global Times, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying claimed that Chinese authorities had hurriedly sent off its nearest Coast Guard ships to rescue the fleeing fishermen. Hua states that Indonesia’s actions had violated international laws and harmed the lives and property of Chinese citizens.
“China urges Indonesia to stop taking action that escalates tension, complicates issues, or affects peace and stability,” Hua said.
The waters of the Natuna sea have been prone to numerous incidents of late. Back in May, Chinese fishing vessel Gui Bei Yu-27088 and its eight crew members were seized by the Indonesian navy after one of its frigates intercepted the trawler. The fishing boat ignored repeated warnings to stop and the warship fired numerous warning shots, some of which landed on the fishing boat’s stern. An even more volatile incident occurred back in March when a Chinese fishing boat was literally rammed free by a Chinese Coast Guard ship after being seized by the Indonesian navy. In response to this incident, Indonesia blew up 23 foreign trawlers seized for illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, hoping to send a message China’s way.
These incidents have ignited public outrage and put Indonesian-Chinese diplomatic relations on shaky ground, especially following the two nation’s botched agreement over plans to develop the archipelago nation’s railway infrastructure. On Hexun News, some Chinese netizens even demanded action against the Indonesians:
“Are our ships encountering pirates? If we bumped into (the Indonesians) again, we must use military retaliation to protect ourselves,” one web user wrote.
Ultimately, the issue of the South China Sea’s territorial borders has remained an obstacle in this bilateral relationship. Indonesia has repeatedly sought clarification on China’s extensive claim on the sea — which competes with claims made by Vietnam, Philippines and Taiwan.
Unlike its more aggressive neighbors in Hanoi and Manila, Indonesia is not a claimant state in the flurry of disputes over the extent of China’s territorial waters. Nevertheless, it actively monitors China’s development on its “Great Wall of Sand,” which has been going rather swimmingly lately with plans for tourist facilities, surface to air missiles, floating nuclear power plants and a giant deep-water lab.
But perhaps just as importantly, the South China Sea is one of the world’s most important fishing grounds. Chinese fish-consumption is twice the global average and thanks to disastrous overfishing nearby, there really never is enough fish in the sea, causing Chinese fishermen to sail farther and farther from home. In recent years, Chinese fishermen have been detained by Russia, North Korea, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Argentina and South Africa.
But it’s those fishing closer to home that generate the most tension. For years, China has been accused of using its fishing boat fleet to secure its claim in the South China Sea, paying captains extra for fishing in disputed areas and even sending them to clash with rival fishermen from Vietnam and the Philippines — as well as Indonesian warships.
By Arnie Yung
[Images via Ming Pao]