Indonesia’s navy chief said Monday it would move its combat squad’s headquarters to the Natuna Islands to protect Jakarta’s territorial interests near the South China Sea, amid incursions in national waters by Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats.
Repositioning the headquarters of the Guspurla combat force to the Natuna chain would enable it to respond faster to incidents at sea, compared with the HQ’s current location in Jakarta, said Adm. Yudo Margono, the navy chief of staff. The Natunas lie at the southern edge of the South China Sea in waters that Indonesia calls the Natuna Sea.
“The combat squad headquartered in Jakarta is tasked with enforcing sovereignty at sea. The area of operations includes the Natuna Sea. So it will be more effective if we assign the combat force in the Natuna Sea,” Yudo said in a speech in Jakarta.
“This will allow the Guspurla commander to directly lead the battleships in the combat force there.”
Yudo did not specify when the move would occur, but said it would be permanent. Guspurla operates under Naval Fleet Command I. The command operates four frigates and corvettes – the KRI John Lee, KRI Wiratno, KRI Sutanto, and KRI Cut Nyak Dien – as well as one CN235 aircraft.
Indonesia does not consider itself a party to South China Sea disputes, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, defines an exclusive economic zone as an area generally extending 200 nautical miles from shore, within which coastal countries retain special rights to exploration and use of marine resources, even though it is international territory.
In September, Indonesia detected a China Coast Guard ship in its EEZ off the Natunas.
In early 2020, Indonesia sent fighter jets and ships to drive away Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships which, Jakarta said, were encroaching in its EEZ in the area.
In a diplomatic note to the United Nations secretary-general on May 26, Jakarta rejected China’s Nine-Dash Line, which Beijing uses to demarcate its claims in the South China Sea.
Indonesia later rebuffed China’s invitation to negotiate what Beijing called “overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests” in the contested sea region.
Separately, Vietnam and Indonesia have overlapping EEZs in the South China Sea. While the two Southeast Asian neighbors are negotiating over the issue, they have yet to reach an agreement because neither side wants to let go of fishing rights in the North Natuna Sea.
In early October, the KRI John Lie caught two Vietnamese-flagged vessels suspected of fishing illegally in North Natuna Sea waters.
Last year, Indonesia sank dozens of foreign boats, including many from Vietnam, which were seized after straying into its waters without permission. At the time, Indonesia’s foreign ministry summoned Hanoi’s deputy ambassador after the navy claimed that two Vietnamese coast guard boats had rammed one of its patrol ships near the Natuna Islands.
In addition to China, six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with China’s sweeping claims. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The biggest threat to Indonesia in the Natuna Sea comes from Chinese fishing activities there, Siswanto Rusdi, director of the National Maritime Institute (Namarin), said Monday during an online discussion on regional security.
“We don’t have overlapping claims in the South China Sea. However, China is a country that has a large fishing fleet, perhaps the largest in the world. As a result, they can go to any sea, including ours,” Siswanto said.
An attempt by Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (Baklama) to assert the country’s sovereignty by deploying more Indonesian fishing vessels into North Natuna waters has been less successful, said Aan Kurnia, the agency’s director.
“We sent fishermen [from Java], but after less than one month they asked to return because they complained that their catches were not optimal because their fishing gear was not as sophisticated as that of the Chinese or Vietnamese,” said Aan, who also participated in the online discussion.
According to Aan, China sends fishermen who have undergone military-like training.
“China is harassing countries that border the South China Sea with its gray zone tactics,” Aan said.
“They are not ordinary fishermen. They are fishermen who have been trained in state defense. They are well trained,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vietnam has expansive claims in the waters that edge into the territory of Indonesia’s waters.
Destructive Fishing Watch (DFW) Indonesia, a non-government organization that advocates for sea workers, said last month that 31 foreign vessels, most of them Vietnam-flagged, had carried out illegal fishing in Natuna’s waters.
Increased surveillance was needed to prevent poaching of fish, Mohammad Arifuddin, a DFW Indonesia researcher, said in a statement last month.
“Indonesia cannot be passive about the rampant theft of fish,” he said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.