Back door diplomacy to respond to China’s claim over Natuna?

Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation discussion themed “RI’s Sovereignty over Natuna” held in Kalibata, South Jakarta, on Monday (13/01/2020). (Photo: IO/Rayi Gigih)

IO, Jakarta – The Natuna Sea heats up again. Chinese ships that left Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) last week have been passing back and forth within the Zone, a mere 200 miles from the end point of Natuna Islands’ outermost island. Three Indonesian Navy vessels, i.e., KRI Usman Harun-359, KRI John Lie-358, and KRI Karel Satsuit Tubun-356, detected 49 foreign trawler fishing vessels suspected of illegal fishing within the borders of the EEZ, on Saturday (11/01/2020).

It didn’t stop there: China-4301 Chinese Coast Guard vessel shadowed KRI Usman Harun-359 shining spotlights on its deck when our patrol vessel approached the Chinese trawler vessel. The China-5302 Chinese Coast Guard vessel even cut in front of KRI Usman Harun-359 within 60 yards (55 meters).

The tense encounter actually started on 19 December 2019, when Indonesia complained that China has broken into Indonesia’s EEZ and performed illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing (IUUF). The Chinese Coast Guard was also reported for violation of sovereignty in Natuna waters, as China unilaterally claimed rights over Natuna.

In response to this issue, Chairman of Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations (CDCC) Din Syamsuddin stated that any violation of maritime borders by Chinese ships must be resolved as quickly as possible, as it represents a threat to our country’s sovereignty. “We must resolve this issue as soon as possible. With current geopolitical developments, I think we all agree that everyone wants stability and peace. Therefore, a resolution is necessary. Nevertheless, we must uphold the sovereignty of our country,” Din Syamsuddin said in a Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation discussion themed “RI’s Sovereignty over Natuna” held in Kalibata, South Jakarta, on Monday (13/01/2020).

Din believes that the Government of Indonesia should not negotiate for any reason if borders are breached. During the Dialogue, he expressed his appreciation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ statement that we will never negotiate with China. “I admire her statement that there shall be no negotiation on this issue. It is time for Indonesia to consistently implement the contents of the Preamble of the Constitution of ‘45,” he said.

Need to Strengthen Indonesian Navy
Similar to Din, International Maritime Law expert Prof. Hasjim Djalal urged the Government to immediately appoint a negotiator to start seeking the most optimal resolution with the Chinese Government in order to avoid getting stuck in a mire of international conflict. “We need a better way to start talks in order to prevent being stuck in international conflicts with the US, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia,” he said. “I believe that Mr. Damos Dumoli Agusman, Director General of International Laws and Agreements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is the best man for the job.”

Hasjim further stated that the case of China’s marine piracy in Natuna waters should inspire the Indonesian Government to strengthen the technological and armed capacity of its Naval Forces. “Our defense must also be strengthened. Our entire Navy only has 3 submarines, while China has more than 70,” he said. “To add insult to injury, our Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut – “Bakamla”) is practically non-functioning. China has more interest over the area than Indonesia itself, and that is a great shame.”

Committee I member of the House of Representatives (“DPR RI”) Sukamta stated that DPR is unanimous that our sovereignty cannot be compromised. DPR further urges the Government to stand up to secure the sovereignty of NKRI, whether in Natuna or in any other part of the territory. “Especially since the issue is not just about breaking into EEZ, but it is an obstruction of law enforcement by lawful Indonesian authorities. It is much heavier than simple territorial claims. The DPR has the same stance in this case,” he said.

Sukamta stated that Committee I of DPR plans to invite all stakeholders, starting from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense, the Commander of the Armed Forces, the National Intelligence Agency (Badan Intelijen Negara – “BIN”), to Bakamla to discuss the problem in Natuna waters. He further stated that the meeting is meant to discover what actually happened and to prevent misunderstandings. “We would like to know the issue first, and the DPR is basically ready to provide political backup for this issue,” he said. “We manage such a large aquatic territory in Indonesia – we should empower its economy optimally. I think in this case, the Government should create room in the State Budget to cover this, and DPR has the power to strengthen it.”

Sukamta also requests that the Government of Indonesia must be able to ascertain whether China only stole fish when it broke into Natuna’s borders, or whether there is something else here. We don’t want fishing violations to actually be used as camouflage for China’s true intent. “We worry that China only used its fishermen as cover. Therefore, we need to ensure that they do not take any step that can endanger us in general,” he said.

Sukamta states that there are some oddities in the case. One of these is that it is necessary for the suspicious fishermen to cross through Malaysian waters to get to Natuna, but Malaysia did not respond to the presence of these Chinese fishermen in their waters at all. “Malaysian waters are being used for the passage of Chinese fishermen, but it remains quiet. It is impossible for Malaysia to be unaware of the situation. We hope that the Government will face this threat as a united front,” he said.

Need to Empower Fishermen
CEO of Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative, Mas Achmad Santosa, believes that the Government must empower the fishermen of Natuna in order to show the world that Indonesia is present in Natuna. This will prevent China or other foreign countries from doing anything suspicious there. “How can we ensure that North Natuna can provide welfare and prosperity to Natuna’s own fishermen? We must not prioritize Javanese fishermen over local Natunan fishermen,” he said. “Our data shows that local fishermen in Natuna rarely have ships with large GTs. They mostly use 10-30 GT ships and get operational permits from the Regional Government. Their presence functions as one of the nation’s guards of the territory that complements our law enforcement officers. There is a real need to modernize Indonesian fishermen,” he said.

It is common knowledge, as Coordinating Minister of Ma­­ri­­time Affairs and Invest­ment Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan stated, that the Government will maintain the sovereignty of the State by immediately moving fishing operations, specifically from the Northern Coast of Java, to the waters of Natuna, Riau Islands. “We have been planning for this migration of fishermen for years, but the completion of a fishing hub in Natuna kept being delayed. We are forcing the issue now. I have spoken with Minister of Marine Affairs and Fisheries Edhy Prabowo; this must be completed this year,” he stated in an interview on Thursday (09/01/2020).

Similar to Mas Achmad Santosa, International Law Expert Hikmahanto Juwana agrees that the Government of Indonesia must establish the presence of Indonesian fishermen in the waters of Natuna. This is a necessary response to the presence of Chinese fishermen within Indonesia’s EEZ. “I suggest that we put our fishermen there. We don’t want to accede to them,” he said. “Laws can still be ignored in the murky waters of international borders, but physical presence carries more weight. China has been stealing fish from EEZ Indonesia at the same spot repeatedly. They probably subsidize their fishermen in order to maintain effective control of the area. The question of a subsidy is paramount: are we going to subsidize our fishermen there or not? If we don’t subsidize them, they would use business calculation and prefer not to fish there, because it’s just not worth their while.”

Hikmah further stated that instead of bringing its fishermen to fish in Natuna’s waters, Indonesia needs to perform back door diplomacy instead. “At least we need this liaison to tell China that Indonesia will not be able to stop negative public sentiment towards China if this goes on,” he said.

Furthermore, he believes that the difference of perspective between the Exclusive Economic Zone and the nine dash-lines in Natuna’s waters as claimed by China will never be reconcilable. “The issue will not be resolved until the end of time. If I recall rightly, more Chinese ships have entered the area today. It’s like flying a kite – sometimes they pull, sometimes they let the line slack off,” he said.

Hikmahanto reiterates that the issue between Indonesia and China in Natuna is one of sovereignty. Indonesia’s straightforwardness in stating that we do not acknowledge the nine dash-lines is most likely known by China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. “And there has been no response since then,” he said. “Even if there is a response, it is always the same generic statement that China never has an issue concerning sovereignty with Indonesia. In a way, it is true that they never had a problem with admitting our sovereignty as a whole.”

Hikmahanto further clarifies that the Natuna issue is related to sovereignty rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone, which is to be interpreted that Indonesia only has rights over the resources, not territorial rights. “So our rights are related to natural resources in the water, like fish, and other wealth found under the sea bed as a continental base.” (Dan)