Tension is mounting between China and neighboring Indonesia after a recent fishery dispute brought to light their competing claims over the 200-nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) surrounding the Natuna Islands, which sit northwest of the island of Borneo in the disputed South China Sea.
Analysts say China, while standing firm on its maritime claims, will refrain from irritating Indonesia, which has threatened to bring Beijing to the international arbitration court for a clarification over the Natuna situation.
But that doesn’t mean China is ready to make another concession after having openly acknowledged Indonesia’s sovereign rights to the islands, they add.
Fishery dispute intensified
Jakarta claimed in mid-March that a Chinese fishing boat was illegally fishing just over four kilometers off the coast of the Natuna islands and inside waters Indonesia claims as its exclusive economic zone.
Indonesia coast guards thus detained eight Chinese fishermen before a Chinese Coast Guard ship intervened and freed the detained vessel by ramming it back into the South China Sea.
To convey an official protest, Indonesia Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Minister Susi Pudjiastuti asked to meet with China’s Jakarta-based ambassador to denounced Chinese authorities’ “support for illegal, unreported or unregulated fishing.”
The Indonesia government also expressed harsh words for China’s violations of its EEZ and demanded it return the arrested vessel.
During a recent press conference, the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi insisted that “[it was] a violation by China’s coast guard into Indonesia’s sovereignty and jurisdiction in the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf.”
The minister urged China to abide by international laws.
“In good state relations, we should respect the existing international laws, including the 1982 United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea,” she added.
China, however, has denied any wrongdoing.
Sun Weide, the acting charge d’affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, said he told Minister Marsudi, during their meeting, that the incident happened in the “traditional Chinese fishing grounds,” and demanded the Indonesian government immediately release the detained fishermen.
“I emphasized that we hope the Indonesia side can proceed from a mutual interest about good bilateral relations and solve these kinds of issues,” Sun told reporters after the meeting, reiterating that “when it comes to fishery disputes or maritime issues, China is always ready to work with Indonesia to solve the dispute through negotiations and dialogues.”
However Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law expert at University of Indonesia, said the Chinese argument has no legal merit.
“To say that the Chinese fishermen have the right to catch the fish based on traditional fishing grounds, according to the Chinese government, is a defense that is not recognized under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said.
He added that what is recognized is traditional fishing rights, which must be agreed to between states, such as an agreement Indonesia has with Malaysia, but not with China.
No more concessions?
China has reiterated that it has no competing claim over Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, which is in line with its first-ever statement, issued in November, to openly declare that Beijing has no objection to Indonesia’s sovereignty over the islands.
The Natuna islands, which sit between the northern tip of Indonesia and the southern tip of Vietnam, consists about 270 islands with 70,000 residents and lie outside of China’s self-designated nine-dash-line, which maps Beijing’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.
It was a significant concession in favor of Indonesia.
But Indonesia is growing impatient with China’s strategic ambiguity over the country’s legitimacy of the islands’ EEZ, which protrudes into China’s nine-dash-line territorial claims.
Some thus argue that, judging by the way it has handled the fishery dispute, Indonesia is getting tough on China about their overlapping waters.
In response, China will try to avoid any escalation of tensions, said Li Jinming, professor at Xiamen University’s Center for Southeast Asia Studies, dismissing the likelihood that the dispute will turn into a similar episode in 2014 when plummeting relations between China and Vietnam over the presence of a Chinese oil rig in the disputed waters fueled anti-China sentiments in Vietnam.
Court of arbitration
Nevertheless, China is unlikely to back down on its territorial claims, the professor added.
“China has never opted to resolve disputes in the Court of Arbitration. Instead, China has long proposed that both concerned countries should peacefully settle their differences on overlapping waters through negotiations and dialogues,” said Li.
That means, the professor added, China will continue to boycott the international court’s authority if Indonesia follows the Philippines’ footsteps to resolve the territorial rows.
Hikmahanto Juwana agrees that the issue should be solved through direct talks.
"I think that kind of manner should not be conducted by good friend of Indonesia and this kind of manner should be dealt in the diplomatic corridor rather than settling it in the international tribunal or settling it legally,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chinese netizens are also taking a nationalistic stance on the dispute.
Most Weibo users have written strong-worded posts. One user said it is “time to teach Indonesia a lesson” and another said “[China] should have had exercised its rights to self-defense and sunk the Vietnamese [official] vessel.” Yet another commented that “China should have played it the hard way so as to set an example for other [neighboring] countries to well-behave.”
Joyce Huang reported from Taipei.