Can Indonesia Afford a Fish War With China?

Jakarta needs Beijing’s billions, but it’s fed up with Chinese fishing boats trawling its waters.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
This picture taken on April 23, 2016 shows a member of the Indonesian navy standing before the Chinese trawler "Hua Li-8" (L) in Belawan, North Sumatra.
Indonesian warships have detained a Chinese trawler allegedly operating illegally in Indonesian waters, just weeks after a confrontation between vessels from the two countries caused tensions, the navy said on April 24. / AFP / ABIMATA HASIBUAN        (Photo credit should read ABIMATA HASIBUAN/AFP/Getty Images)
This picture taken on April 23, 2016 shows a member of the Indonesian navy standing before the Chinese trawler "Hua Li-8" (L) in Belawan, North Sumatra. Indonesian warships have detained a Chinese trawler allegedly operating illegally in Indonesian waters, just weeks after a confrontation between vessels from the two countries caused tensions, the navy said on April 24. / AFP / ABIMATA HASIBUAN (Photo credit should read ABIMATA HASIBUAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In recent years, Indonesia has tried to stay above the fray as other countries feuded with Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Now, though, Southeast Asia’s largest country is becoming increasingly assertive in pushing back against Beijing’s far-reaching claims, impounding Chinese fishing ships, deploying naval vessels to patrol its waters, and dispatching fighter jets to far-flung islands.

Indonesia’s newfound stance could alter the regional balance of power before next week’s ruling from an international tribunal at The Hague, one that is widely expected to slam China’s pretense to ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea.

Jakarta’s biggest beef with China isn’t about isolated reefs and rocks, the front-line flashpoints that have soured relations between China and its neighbors Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. In fact, Indonesia still maintains that it has no territorial dispute with China, unlike most of the other states in the region.

Rather, far-ranging Chinese fishermen, subsidized by the Chinese government and protected by Chinese Coast Guard ships, are increasingly poaching in Indonesian waters. That’s bad news for a country that depends heavily on its fish and seafood exports, and a big reason why Indonesia has taken to blowing up vessels it catches fishing illegally, whether Chinese or not. The foreign fishing crews are usually repatriated, while Jakarta makes a point of publicizing the destruction of the boats to signal to China and others that it will not tolerate any encroachment on its fishing grounds.

The Indonesian government, led for a change by a businessman rather than a general, is still trying to find a balance between bolstering economic ties with China and protecting what it sees as its national interest. The president, Joko Widodo, desperately wants to secure Chinese investment to build up the Indonesian economy, especially big-ticket infrastructure projects like China’s first overseas high-speed rail line. But Joko has also launched new maritime and defense strategies that make clear Jakarta’s wish to stake out a bigger security role that reflects its economic heft and large population.

In recent months, Indonesia has taken a host of steps that suggest a much tougher line against Beijing. In late May, it publicly released its first defense white paper in nearly a decade, outlining plans for the archipelagic nation to become a “global maritime power,” especially in light of the tensions in the South China Sea. It also calls for stepped-up air and naval facilities on the Natuna Islands, where Jakarta already dispatched several F-16 fighters this spring.

Jakarta has also started sending out Navy vessels to push back against muscled-up Chinese Coast Guard vessels that accompany the fishing fleet. To drive home the message, Joko held a cabinet meeting in late June on one of the warships that recently tussled with Chinese fishermen.

“Joko is torn, but the trajectory is one of gradually becoming tougher,” said Evan Medeiros, a former Asia hand in the Obama administration and now managing director at the Eurasia Group. “The fact that he went out to the Natunas and conducted a cabinet meeting at the naval base, that is very significant symbolism for a country like Indonesia.”

Since winning the presidency in 2014, Joko has stressed his goal of transforming Indonesia into a maritime powerhouse. That includes both greater economic development and an increased maritime presence, from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea. He just announced plans for more oil and gas drilling and fishing near the Natunas.

“We believe that our future is in the sea,” Joko said after the Natuna cabinet meeting in June.

For its part, China has bristled at Indonesia’s newfound willingness to police its own waters. For the first time, China acknowledged that the two countries have overlapping claims in the waters around the Natuna Islands, an archipelago at the southern edge of the South China Sea, about halfway between Singapore and Brunei.

The frictions between China and Indonesia have largely centered on fish. China believes that it has “historic rights” to all the waters in the South China Sea, whether for fishing or oil and gas drilling, though there is no such concept in international law. Indonesia argues that waters inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, as laid out explicitly in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, are its exclusive economic preserve, especially when it comes to fishing.

But dwindling fish stocks in other parts of the Pacific are driving Chinese fishermen — with plenty of government encouragement and financial assistance — deeper into foreign waters. China and Indonesia are the first- and second-largest fish-catching countries in the world.

The fishing tussle is turning into an outright fight. China uses its fishing fleet as an informal militia. It escorts private fishing vessels with oversized Coast Guard ships, usually former naval vessels, and conducts military training for its fishermen. To keep up, Indonesia has had to deploy naval vessels of its own — and for now they’re keeping Chinese ships at bay.

“There has been an escalation on the Indonesian side in terms of the kinds of ships that are being sent,” said Don Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia program at Stanford University. What was once a purely economic tiff now has more serious overtones, he said.

“Now that the Navy is involved in repelling Chinese fishermen, it is clearly about security, and that’s another indication of a marginal shift” in Indonesian thinking, Emmerson said.

To be sure, there are plenty of divisions inside the Indonesian government. Some officials, including Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, are more hawkish about taking on China. Others, including Joko himself, have prioritized bolstering economic growth — which requires a more cooperative approach with China. Indeed, despite this year’s defense white paper, Indonesian military spending is set to fall this year, as the budget emphasis shifts to big infrastructure projects.

“There are signs that Indonesia is becoming more concerned” about China and what it is doing in the South China Sea, Emmerson said, but he cautioned against “wishful thinking” in Washington about the depth of the Indonesian evolution.

Still, Indonesia’s shift is important given the heft it has in the region — and the standoff role it has traditionally played. As a result of heavy-handed Chinese actions — from land grabs to the creation of artificial islands to the dispatch of oil rigs to foreign waters — countries like Vietnam and the Philippines have started to push back against Beijing. In January, the Philippines approved the return of U.S. naval forces after a quarter-century absence. The United States just lifted an embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam, and the former enemies are cooperating more on defense. Now, Indonesia seems poised to align itself closer to those countries that have adopted a firmer line with China while seeking stronger security ties to the United States.

Given its history and the size of its population and economy, Indonesia is the “de facto” leader of the organization meant to speak for regional governments, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Medeiros said. While Joko in his two years in office has been reluctant to seize an international leadership role, Medeiros said, “when Indonesia speaks or acts, the rest of the region listens.”

China has leaned heavily on ASEAN members to tone down public criticism of its island-building and coercive moves in the South China Sea, and that has not gone down well with Indonesia’s government.

“I think China’s attempts to break ASEAN have really touched a nerve in Jakarta. They feel a certain sort of ownership over ASEAN as an institution,” a congressional staffer told Foreign Policy.

With its tough tactics, Beijing has irritated a government that had been preoccupied with domestic affairs, and would have been content to avoid public clashes with China over territorial disputes. Beijing has “antagonized Indonesia much more than necessary,” the staffer said.

Most importantly, just before the Hague tribunal ruling that will likely put Beijing on the spot, and perhaps even tempt Chinese leaders to lash out at what they see as a politically motivated witch hunt to check Beijing’s power, Indonesia’s changing tune could have important echoes in Beijing.

“The more that countries in the region demonstrate that they have the capability and the political willingness to push back,” Medeiros said, “that affects China’s strategic calculation.”

FP‘s Dan De Luce contributed to this article.

Photo credit: ABIMATA HASIBUAN/AFP/Getty Images

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP