Chinese ship near Indonesia further stokes Pacific tensions
March 21, 2016
China’s coast guard intervened Sunday following the arrest of Chinese fishermen in Indonesian coastal waters, a signal that it may be ratcheting up an aggressive pursuit of South China Sea territorial claims that has drawn sharp criticism from the United States and several of its Asian allies.
Around 2 a.m., the Chinese coast guard vessel approached the fishing boat. Indonesian law enforcement had boarded it the previous day and detained the crew on suspicion of illegal fishing while it was just 2.7 miles from the shoreline of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, Minister of Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Susi Pudjiastuti told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.
The coast guard vessel then shoved the fishing vessel out of Indonesia’s territorial waters, according to the Globe report.
Security analysts who spoke with Stars and Stripes said Monday that some uncertainty remains over the location and sequence of events that occurred, as is often the case with preliminary reports.
However, analysts say this much is clear: The incident shows China has no intention of backing off its ambiguous claim to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, or heeding U.S. calls to cease new activities around disputed territories.
China responded indignantly to Indonesia’s version of events, stating Sunday the vessels had been operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”
Susi, a popular figure in Indonesia for her orders to blow up foreign vessels fishing illegally with dynamite, said she had summoned China’s ambassador on Monday.
Thus far, China’s low-level showdowns at sea with nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Japan have mostly occurred near uninhabited islands, or territories manned by military detachments.
The Natuna Islands have 76,000 residents, according to Indonesian figures.
If the Chinese vessels were as close as Indonesian officials claim, there is no way the Chinese coast guard wouldn’t have known they were operating within Indonesian waters, said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank.
The latest incident “suggests that either the command-and-control of the Chinese coast guard has really come under a lot more challenges than we expected, or else this is a deliberate testing of resolve,” Graham said.
If it is a test, it isn’t one limited to just Indonesia. It is also directed toward the U.S. and China’s regional neighbors, analysts said.
In February, Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry B. Harris told Congress that China is “clearly militarizing” the South China Sea, and that its stance could threaten U.S. freedom of movement in a part of the world where $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade transits annually.
China’s rapid construction of military outposts on or near territories also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan has alarmed many Asia-Pacific nations.
However, each of those governments wrestles with how to balance Beijing’s military assertiveness with its outsized role as an economic powerhouse.
The Natuna incident could represent a tipping point for Indonesia.
Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has primarily focused on domestic issues since his election in 2014, and Chinese investment in infrastructure has been a significant part of that, said Aaron Connelly, a Lowy Institute researcher focused on Indonesia and the U.S security role in Southeast Asia.
However, Jokowi also campaigned on making Indonesia a “strong state” — one that wouldn’t tolerate foreign abuse of its natural resources, which is a sore spot among Indonesians.
Jokowi may have to choose between invoking China’s ire and sticking up for a point of national pride.
“He is now being forced to make a decision he didn’t want to make,” Connolly said.
The Chinese Embassy in Jakarta’s statement appeared to anticipate Jokowi’s dilemma. It called for Indonesia to handle the incident “taking into consideration the overall picture of our bilateral relations.”
The Natuna incident could also hand a greater voice to figures within the Indonesian military who have expressed concerns over China’s military — which could in turn draw Indonesia’s military closer to the U.S. orbit.
Indonesia conducts exercises with China, but its work with the United States includes jungle warfare, anti-terrorism and a host of higher-quality exchanges, said Natalie Sambhi, a research fellow at the Perth USAsia Center.
“The military-to-military relationship with China is much more nascent, whereas Indonesia is a much more established customer of American military platforms,” Sambhi said.
Sambhi noted that China and Indonesia have had tense maritime encounters between 2010 and 2013 that were downplayed by Indonesia. This time, Susi called a press conference the same day.
The latest incident could mean more resources for the navy and air force, Sambhi said, though this would require assent from Indonesia’s much more politically powerful army.
A stronger navy would be welcomed by the U.S. 7th Fleet, which operates out of the Asia-Pacific and actively courts support from other militaries to uphold its positions on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.