Indonesia says it plans to open a fishing zone inside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea this year to prevent Chinese encroachment.
Maritime minister Luhut Pandjaitan said the Natuna Sea was within Indonesia’s EEZ but Beijing argued it was in its “traditional fishing grounds”. The area is on the southern fringe of the area of the South China Sea claimed by China.
Indonesia says it is not involved in the South China Sea dispute, in spite of diplomatic incidents around the Natunas. The relative strength of Indonesia’s military and the large distance from southern China makes any tension over the Natunas a sideshow compared with China’s disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.
“We have now a tanker ship there that will supply fuel at sea for our fishermen…and naval patrol boats,” Pandjaitan told the media. Development would mean “there will be no countries who claim that the zone is their traditional fishing grounds”.
China made the claim after some illegal Chinese-flagged fishing boats were caught in March 2016 by Indonesia in the Natuna Sea.
President Joko Widodo visited the waters off the Natunas on a naval warship in June 2016.
Pandjaitan said a fish market with refrigeration, a fish-processing centre and a possible boarding house for fishing crews would be built on the Natunas this year.
In December a military base with over 1,000 personnel opened on Natuna Besar (pictured). The island chain is between Borneo and the Malaysian peninsula, more than a 1,000km from Jakarta.
At the inauguration of the base, Air Marshall Hadi Tjahjanto reportedly said: “The outpost is designed to work as a deterrent against any potential security threats, particularly on border areas.”
The new base replaced limited military outposts and has a drone surveillance squadron.
The budget for the establishment of the base in the Natunas was approved by the Indonesian parliament after the 2016 incidents.
Indonesian fishing ships have sunk and burned what they regard as illegal vessels in their waters.
In 2017 the Vietnamese coastguard intercepted an Indonesian patrol ship escorting five Vietnamese fishing boats that were accused of poaching.
Both sides said they hoped to prevent similar maritime incidents.
In 2017 Indonesian renamed the area north of the Natunas the North Natuna Sea to separate it from the South China Sea.
The Natunas were largely ignored by Jakarta before 2016. Picture credit: Wikimedia