Indonesia rebuffs China’s demand that fishermen be released

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia has refused Chinese demands that it release eight fishermen arrested for illegal fishing in a growing confrontation that analysts say dispels the idea that Indonesia has no stake in South China Sea disputes.

Tensions flared after an Indonesian Fisheries Ministry patrol ship intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel on Saturday off the Natuna islands, which overlap the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea, according to Indonesian officials. A Chinese coast guard vessel collided with the fishing boat, the Kway Fey, as it was being towed, allowing it to escape.

Indonesia has accused China of sharply raising tensions in the region by retrieving the seized boat.

China’s expansive claims to most of the South China Sea have alarmed its Southeast Asian neighbors, especially as China reclaims land on reefs and builds infrastructure in disputed areas. Indonesia has not been involved in the territorial disputes, and Beijing has sought to discourage it from joining other nations in challenging China’s sea claims.

Some analysts believe Indonesia will increasingly be drawn into the fray.

The latest confrontation will likely force Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to increase spending on maritime patrols and will be difficult to play down without risking a nationalist backlash, said Achmad Sukarsono, an analyst at Eurasia Group.

It was not the first skirmish between China and Indonesia but it is the first time Indonesia’s response “has been this hostile, signaling a possible turning point in Indonesian views of the Chinese actions in the South China Sea,” he said. It has “dispelled the notion in Jakarta that Indonesia has no real stake in South China Sea tensions.”

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said Wednesday that the eight crewmen will be prosecuted. The government official in charge of maritime security, Arif Havas Oegroseno, said China’s action had created “a new ball game” that Southeast Asian countries need to follow closely.

Indonesian authorities are concerned that an increasingly assertive China might enlarge its territorial claims to include the Natuna islands, which sit between the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s Borneo island and the southern tip of Vietnam and consist of about 270 islands that form part of Indonesia’s Riau Islands province, home to 70,000 people.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi summoned a Chinese diplomat on Monday and protested that China’s coast guard had “violated our sovereignty” and called on China to respect international law.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the incident occurred within traditional Chinese fishing grounds and that the coast guard ship assisted the seized fishing trawler without entering Indonesian territorial waters. It urged Indonesia to immediately release the fishermen.

Oegroseno said a claim of traditional fishing grounds is not recognized under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“It’s very fake, ambiguous, in terms of since when, since what year does it become historical, traditional?” Oegroseno told reporters Wednesday.

He said the collision between the Chinese coast guard vessel and the Kway Fey was an indirect violation of the Collision Regulation convention under the International Maritime Organization.

Pandjaitan said Indonesia would beef up its presence in Natuna by deploying more troops and better-equipped patrol boats, and would strengthen the naval base there with a modern defense system.