Indonesia is sending reinforcements to the southern fringes of the South China Sea as a Chinese fishing fleet stubbornly remains in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), with two more ships currently on the way.
Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) chief Vice-Admiral Achmad Taufiqoerrochman said on Tuesday that Bakamla had detected two additional Chinese coast guard vessels in the North Natuna Sea, Riau Islands, but could not determine whether they had been deployed to patrol the waters or increase China’s presence in the area.
“There are three [Chinese] coast guard vessels [in Natuna] and two vessels are seen further north. We’ll see whether the ships are part of a rotation or serve as reinforcement because we also see a logistical boat,” he said after a meeting with Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD at the latter’s office.
“I have instructed the deployment of two Bakamla patrol boats from Batam [to Natuna].”
Bakamla had already stationed patrol boats in the area, said Bakamla operational director Commodore Nursyawal Embun.
“There are currently three patrol boats operating [in Natuna] – the KN Tanjung Datu, KN Pulau Nipah and KN Pulau Dana,” he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
Taufiqoerrochman also said his agency would support the government’s plan to settle more fishermen in the Natuna Islands by offering them protection.
“We will sail among them, so they will operate close to our vessels.”
However, he said the plan could not be executed any time soon as the current high tides made it dangerous for fishermen to sail the Natuna waters.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian Air Force (TNI AU) sent four F-16 jet fighters from the 16th Squadron to patrol the area.
Roesmin Noerjadin Air Force Base chief Air Commodore Ronny Irianto Moningka said the aircraft departed on Tuesday, as instructed by Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto.
Ronny said the deployment purely aimed to secure Indonesia’s EEZ and was not meant to provoke China.
“This is actually a routine operation in western Indonesia that we shifted to Natuna,” he said as reported by antaranews.com from Pekanbaru, Riau province.
“We don’t want to provoke anyone. We are only protecting our territory.”
A country can exercise its sovereign rights within 200 nautical miles of its EEZ and full sovereignty within 12 nautical miles of its territorial seas.
The Indonesian Navy has deployed at least six warships to secure and patrol the Natuna waters.
‘Nothing to be debated’
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo visited Natuna regency on Wednesday to inspect areas that China claims as its “traditional fishing grounds”, which encroach on Indonesia’s EEZ.
“I have said many times Natuna is our sovereign territory. There is nothing to be debated . . . I hope this is clear,” Jokowi told reporters.
Widodo’s visit to Natuna regency serves as a signal that Indonesia sees its territorial integrity as a matter of great importance amid tension between the country and China over the latter’s manoeuvres in the North Natuna Sea, Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung said.
“This visit shows that the Indonesian government, especially the president, is paying serious attention to the issue of Natuna,” he said.
Jokowi’s visit to Natuna on Wednesday was his fourth to the regency but his first since starting his second term in office in October.
On June 23, 2016, Jokowi held a limited Cabinet meeting on board a warship in Natuna waters, which was seen by analysts as a power play in defence of Indonesian sovereign rights in the area.
The president also visited Natuna to witness the commencement of an Indonesian Air Force exercise in October later that year and headed back to watch the military’s Quick Reaction Strike Force exercise in May 2017.
Defrizal said that Natuna Regent Hamid Rizal planned to ask the president upon his arrival to turn Natuna into a new province with a special administrative status, in line with a presidential decree on Natuna’s regional expansion issued a few years ago.
Over the past week, Jakarta and Beijing have been embroiled in a diplomatic tug-of-war over the latter’s claim to parts of Indonesia’s EEZ, after Bakamla reported multiple counts of Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels operating there illegally.
China claims its ships were performing “routine” activities to protect its rights and interests in “relevant waters”, but Jakarta insists these claims are “unilateral, have no legal basis and have never been recognised by” the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Increased deployments by TNI and Bakamla are said to be a sign of the government trying to deter China, an expert said.
“The deployments are purely made to deter [China], but there are also some domestic elements that seek to create a public debate and rally support for the government,” Idil Syawfi, a Parahyangan Catholic University lecturer on politics, told the Post.
He said the government should reduce tension between the two countries as China could use the escalating tensions as justification to deploy its newly-built aircraft carrier in the South China Sea.
“I’m concerned that China is also using the conflict for domestic purposes. In December, China commissioned its second aircraft carrier. Don’t let this issue become a reason for China to deploy its carrier to the South China Sea,” he said.
He also urged the government to restructure the roles of agencies that handle maritime security, such as Bakamla, the Navy, Customs and Excise Agency and the National Police’s Water and Air Police, to prevent competition between them.
“There are many agencies that have overlapping roles in the field, which can also create competition between agencies as some have better vessels and equipment than others.”
Meanwhile, Mahfud said the government was mulling over plans to create an omnibus law on maritime security, which aims to restructure the responsibility of agencies that operate in Indonesian waters.
“There are overlapping authorities on our maritime management [that are based on] many laws, which are philosophically correct, but we currently need greater synergy. Therefore, we’re considering creating an omnibus law on maritime affairs,” he said.
He added that the government was still discussing whether the omnibus bill would take form as government regulation or as a law.
“God willing, it would all be clear this year because the president instructed [the creation of the bill] two years ago,” he said.
THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK