“Plans for the Natuna Fishing Zone are Unveiled” by Leo Suryadinata

2019/22, 28 February 2019

On 20 February 2019, three days after the second presidential election debate between Jokowi and Prabowo, Luhut Panjaitan, Indonesia’s Co-ordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, unveiled plans that Jakarta intended to set up the Zona Penangkapan Ikan di Laut Natuna (Natuna Fishing Zone) facilities in the third quarter of this year. These facilities would include tanker ships to supply fuel for Indonesian fishermen, cold storage and boarding houses. Indonesian navy ships would also be used to safeguard Indonesian fishing boats.

Foreign fishermen are not allowed to fish in the zone, which is exclusively for Indonesia. This zone is located in the Indonesian Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ), but is also within the so-called “Chinese traditional fishing grounds” claimed by Beijing and an area within Beijing’s Nine-Dash-Line. Both claims of Beijing have been rejected by Jakarta.
Since becoming president in October 2014, Jokowi has been labelled by his opponents as a president who is “pro-Chinese” and “pro-Beijing”; this was based on two assertions: his friendship with Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias Ahok who was his deputy when Jokowi was Governor of Jakarta, and that he has welcomed tourists and investment from China in Indonesia, including the building of the Jakarta-Bandung High Speed Railways. On Natunas issues, Jokowi has been very firm in his stand, including the fishing rights in the Indonesian EEZ. This is to show to the Indonesian people, especially his critics, that he is an Indonesian nationalist.

Since Jokowi became president, his Minister of Maritime and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti has been stern in implementing the policy of confiscating foreign fishing boats that illegally catching fish in the Indonesian territorial waters, including in the Natuna Seas. Most of these fishing boats belonged to Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and China. However, most notable was the dispute in the Natuna EEZ involving Beijing’s fishing boats. While Beijing has publicly acknowledged that Jakarta has the ownership of the Natuna islands, it was ambiguous with regard to its EEZ. China’s fishing boats, accompanied by Chinese patrol boats, often engaged in fishing activities in the Indonesian claimed Natuna Seas. When the boats were caught, they were often able to escape because of help from Chinese patrol boats. In March 2016, however, a Chinese fishing boat’s incursion into the Natuna EEZ had developed into a diplomatic outcry between Jakarta and Beijing. Jokowi boarded the Indonesian warship to the Natunas, indicating that his government was serious about defending Indonesian sovereignty. Indonesian parliament ratified the budget for improving the Natuna airport and other military facilities. Soon after the dispute Beijing sent an envoy to Jakarta for negotiations. There were two further Chinese incursions in May and June 2016 but has stopped since July 2016.
To consolidate Indonesian claims, on 14 July 2017, the Jokowi government issued an Indonesian new map which renamed the northern part of the EEZ as Laut Natuna Utara (North Natuna Seas). On 25 August, almost one and half months after the event, Beijing sent a protest note to the Indonesian Embassy in Beijing, telling Jakarta that China did not recognize the renaming of part of the South China Seas. Jakarta did not respond.

There was no news of developments on the Natunas until a few days ago when Luhut Panjaitan issued a statement on the building of facilities in the Natuna waters. This move may be linked to the 17 April 2019 Presidential election. During the second presidential election debate on 17 February, Prabowo criticized Jokowi for not correcting the imbalance in trade between Jakarta and Beijing as it favoured Beijing. Prabowo claimed that if he was elected as President, he would make a better deal with China.

In the 2014 presidential election debate, Prabowo also noted that Indonesia should play a more active role in the South China Sea issues as it concerned Indonesia’s territory and security. This contrasted with Jokowi’s more cautious stand, that there was no overlapping territorial claim between Beijing and Jakarta in the area. The announcement of plans on building facilities in the Natuna Fishing Zone during this time may thus be intended to shake off the image that Jokowi is soft on China so as to pre-empt his opponents from raising the issue during the campaign.

Dr Leo Suryadinata is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.