Indonesia to charge 3 Chinese nationals with poaching amid tensions with China

The captain of the Chinese fishing boat that sparked the latest tensions between Indonesia and China will be charged with poaching, along with his chief engineer and fishing master, said Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti on Friday night (April 1).

The remaining five of the eight Chinese nationals arrested by Indonesian maritime authorities from the Kway Fey fishing boat last month will be deported, added the Indonesian entrepreneur-turned-politician during a meeting with the media.

This is because the crew was just following orders while the responsibility of the actions of the vessel in Indonesian waters was that of the three more senior men.

"Only those three positions are responsible," added Ms Susi.

The Kway Fey was stopped by local maritime authorities on March 19 after it was spotted fishing illegally in waters off Indonesia's Natuna Islands. But a Chinese coast guard patrol boat later prevented its Indonesian counterpart from towing it back to base.

The incident had spiralled into a rare territorial dispute between the two countries, with Indonesia taking an uncharacteristically hard stance.

Ms Susi has demanded that Beijing return the Kway Fey to Indonesia so that she can sink it - to send a strong signal to poachers.

She said on Friday that a total of 153 vessels caught poaching in Indonesian waters have been sunk since she took office in late 2014. The bulk of which are from Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as a number of Indonesia-flagged vessels without permits.

More than 30 will be added to that number by April 5, she added.

According to President Joko Widodo, Indonesia suffers annual losses of more than US$20 billion (S$27.4 billion) from illegal fishing.

Ms Susi has been the main driver behind the President's plan to revive the shipbuilding and fisheries industries in a bid to re-establish Indonesia as a maritime power.

To achieve the goal, Indonesia has been trying to maximise the potential of the sector through, among other things, modernisation of current industry practices, abolishing trans-shipment activities, and going after poachers.

Enforcement efforts have been ramped up in recent years, including the enhancement of its maritime surveillance capabilities.

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu reiterated on Friday a plan to deploy a fleet of F-16 jet fighters as well as increase the number of navy vessels and troops in the Natuna Islands.

The incident in the Natunas comes amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea because of overlapping claims involving Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. China has laid claim to most of the South China Sea, occupying more reefs and outcrops in these waters and building artificial islands, including airstrips, on some of them.

Indonesia is not a party to the dispute in the waterway, a key conduit for global trade estimated at US$5 trillion a year.