Indonesia mobilizes fishermen in stand-off with China

Indonesia mobilizes fishermen in stand-off with China

Top Stories | Jan 22, 2020:


Indonesia will mobilize fishermen to join warships in the South China Sea to help defend against Chinese vessels, the government said in early January 2020, as the biggest stand-off with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for years escalated off Southeast Asia’s largest country.

In an unusually strong statement, President Joko Widodo told reporters: “There is no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty.”

The stand-off since December 2019 in the northern Natuna islands, where a PRC coast guard vessel has accompanied Chinese fishing vessels, has soured the generally friendly relationship between Jakarta and Beijing. (Pictured: Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, along with then-military chief Gatot Nurmantyo, left, and Air Force Commander Agus Supriatna, walk past fighter jets and weapons during a military exercise on Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia.)

Indonesia’s chief security minister, Mahfud MD, told reporters that about 120 fishermen from the island of Java would be sent to the Natuna Islands, 1,000 kilometers to the north.

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

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, said it was sending more warships to the area. Six Indonesian ships are there now and four more are on the way, Imam Hidayat, the head of the Maritime Security Agency’s sea operations subdirectorate, told Reuters recently.

The PRC claims much of the South China Sea, a global trade route with rich fishing grounds and energy reserves, as its own based on what it says is historic activity. However, Southeast Asian countries — and the United States and much of the world — say such claims have no legal basis.

Indonesian vessels often confront Chinese fishermen off the Natuna Islands, but the presence of the PRC coast guard vessel has marked an escalation this year over which Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador.

Speaking in Beijing recently, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the PRC had sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and their waters and that both China and Indonesia have “normal” fishing activities there. He did not specifically mention the Natuna Islands, which are southwest of the Spratlys.

In 2019, the PRC engaged in a prolonged maritime standoff in Vietnam’s extended economic zone and jangled nerves with its naval presence off the coasts of the Philippines and Malaysia.

The last peak in tensions between Indonesia and the PRC over the South China Sea was in 2016, when a PRC coast guard vessel rammed a Chinese fishing boat to free it after it had been intercepted for illegal fishing by Indonesian authorities.