Indonesia recruits fishermen in South China Sea dispute

Indonesia says it will mobilise fishing crews in the South China Sea to help expel Chinese vessels from Indonesian waters. 

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced: “There is no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty.”

The standoff around Indonesia’s northern Natuna islands – where a Chinese coastguard ship has been guarding fishing vessels – has damaged previously convivial relations with China. 

On January 11, three Indonesian naval ships expelled more than 50 Chinese ships from its exclusive economic zone in the Natuna Sea north of Borneo. Numerous incursions in the fishing-rich waters bordering the South China Sea has been reported. 

Indonesian security minister, Mahfud MD, said approximately 120 members of fishing crews from Java would be deployed more than 1,000km north to the Natuna islands.

“We want to mobilise our fishermen from the north coast and maybe in turn from other areas to operate by fishing there and other things,” Mahfud told the media. 

This month Jokowi and Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi deepened investment deals in fisheries, energy and tourism for the Natuna islands. 

Japan in 2019 contributed US$22.7 million to Indonesian efforts to develop fishing ports on six islands. Tokyo has also invested US$7 million to build a fish market on Natuna, to be named Tsukiji after Tokyo’s large fish market.

Japan also agreed to bolster coastguard coordination and address Beijing’s “illegal” claims in the South China Sea.

“We shared a serious concern regarding efforts to change with force the status quo unilaterally and we confirmed continuing close collaboration,” Motegi told the media. 

Japan has a parallel dispute with Beijing over the East China Sea. 

With one of the world’s longest coastlines and its fourth-highest population, Indonesia is the second-largest marine plastic polluter after China.

Indonesia said last week that it was boosting its naval presence around the islands, where it opened a military base in December 2018. 

Six Indonesian ships were already deployed and four others were heading to the Natunas, said Imam Hidayat of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency.

Beijing claims around 80 per cent of the South China Sea although almost all of the international community says China’s territorial ambitions have no legal basis.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said “diplomatic channels” had been opened with Indonesia and “both countries shoulder responsibility for maintaining regional peace and stability”.

Geng said last week that China had sovereignty over the Spratly islands and its waters – which are claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. He said China and Indonesia had “normal” fishing activities around the archipelago.

The Indonesian navy often confronts Chinese fishing vessels near the Natunas, but the deployment of the coastguard ship has raised the stakes. Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador over the issue. 

Indonesia and China experienced tensions over the South China Sea in 2016. A Chinese coastguard ship rammed a fishing boat from China to knock it free after it had been apprehended by the Indonesian navy for illegal fishing. 



Serasan harbour on the remote Natuna islands. Picture credit: Wikimedia