Indonesia’s three-point strategy to hold ground in South China Sea

The biggest threat comes from China’s territorial claim based on its nine-dash-line, with the latest standoff involving Chinese fishing boats entering the North Natuna Sea escorted by the country’s coast guard.

By employing a three-point strategy, Indonesia looks set to protect and secure its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea from external threats, including illegal fishing by China.  Diana M, Indonesia correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade, reports

The South China Sea, or North Natuna Sea to Indonesians, is one of the world’s most famous and disputed seas for its geographical and resource significance. Conflicts between countries have been arising over the years with disputes mainly revolve around territorial issues.

This includes Indonesia, whose EEZ overlaps with China’s territorial claim based on its nine-dash-line. The two countries have been involved in several standoffs, with the last one that happened in January when Chinese fishing boats entered the North Natuna Sea escorted by the country’s coast guard.

Since then, Indonesia’s commitment to protect its territory is intensified, and one of the efforts was to strengthen the role of Maritime Security Agency, or Bakamla, as sole coordinator to protect the waters, by starting a discussion on a more comprehensive legal basis for the agency.

Having a strong law enforcement presence 

Speaking on 23 November, Bakamla chief Vice Admiral Aan Kurnia said the agency has prepared a main three-point strategy from which its future efforts to protect Indonesian territory in the North Natuna Sea will be based on.  The first focus, he said, is to increase presence in the sea, and in order to do so, Bakamla is cooperating with the Indonesian Navy and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.

“According to the laws, Bakamla, the Navy, and the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries can reach the EEZ, and we work together to maintain Indonesia’s presence there. And in terms of navigating the EEZ, vessels actually own the right of innocent passage, but they cannot carry out research activity, fishing, etc.,” Kurnia explained.

He said despite having right of innocent passage, foreign vessels are not allowed to carry out such activities, and heavy presence in the sea will ensure Bakamla and other agencies are able to spot any unlawful activities.

Intensifying fishing efforts

However, mere presence can only do little to ensure maritime security and sovereignty. He added that exploration of the sea should also be intensified because it complements the effort by agencies to increase state presence.

“We should be able to deploy fishing fleets in order to make the most of the natural resources in the North Natuna Sea, but this hasn’t been done properly by Indonesia.”

Previously in March, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Mahfud M.D. confirmed that Indonesia was to send 30 large fishing vessels from the northern Javanese coast to the North Natuna Sea, escorted by Bakamla and other related agencies. The chief security minister said the decision was made in accordance to President Joko Widodo’s instruction to “protect Indonesia’s sovereign rights over the EEZ” as granted and stated in the 1982 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Kurnia revealed that the effort wasn’t a success, as the fishermen asked to return to Java not even a month after they were first deployed to the North Natuna Sea. Differences in fishing method and a lack of training in basic defense and nationalism were cited as the main reasons behind the return.

“They couldn’t get optimized result because it was later found out that the common method of fishing in the North Natuna Sea is trawl, while the Javanese fishermen usually used purse seine,” Kurnia said. “And for grey zone, we shouldn’t only focus on profit, but our fishermen should also possess a sense of nationalism. On the other hand, we continue to face the Chinese fishing boats that are filled with fishermen who have received basic state defense training: the China Maritime Militia.”

Kurnia said he had communicated the importance of such training for Indonesian fishermen to Defense Minister Prabowo, who, he said, welcomed the idea.

Engaging allied countries

The last focus in Bakamla’s strategy to hold the North Natuna Sea is diplomacy. Kurnia said even though Indonesia is a non-claimant state, it is important to maintain collaboration with neighboring countries, including those involved in the nine-dash-line disputes with China.

“Commitment with neighboring countries with ties to the nine-dash-line is crucial to maintain peace in the area because we avoid the North Natuna Sea from becoming a battleground – the impacts will be huge for Indonesia.”

In ensuring diplomacy between countries, Kurnia said the Bakamla works and communicates closely with the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Image credit: Hengky Pagipho / Shutterstock.com

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Diana M

Diana M

Diana M, our Indonesia correspondent, is based in Jakarta. She is a former reporter from The Jakarta Globe. Through her writings, she hopes to bring awareness to important maritime security and trade issues.

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