JAKARTA - Chinese fishing boats poaching in the Natunas was a "ruse" by Beijing to stake its claims in the South China Sea, said the commander of Indonesia navy's Western Fleet on Tuesday (June 21).
"Stealing our fish is just an excuse, it is really a move to establish their claims," Rear Admiral A. Taufiq R. said at a press conference, referring to China.
"When you claim a territory, you have to be there and their way to achieve that is by deploying fishing vessels."
His comments came after Indonesian warships detained another China-flagged vessel and its crew last Friday for fishing illegally in waters off the Natuna Islands, which belong to Indonesia.
The Indonesian navy said it had to fire warning shots to stop a fleet of 12 fishing boats but detained only the Yueyandong Yu 19038 and its crew of seven because the boat was the only one with its fishing nets cast.
The Rear Admiral also denied Beijing's allegations that shots fired by Indonesian warship KRI Imam Bonjol had wounded a Chinese fishing boat crewman, calling it "baseless".
"The seven who were arrested are well, unharmed and unscathed," he added. "We fired warning shots only because they didn't stop."
China's claim of almost all of the South China Sea is the subject of a highly contentious territorial dispute with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
In the weeks ahead, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration (PAC) is expected to rule on an arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China's claim.
Indonesia was never a party to the dispute, but it was dragged into the territorial fracas after Beijing said in March that waters in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are part of its "traditional fishing grounds" and so Chinese vessels should be free to fish in the area.
Beijing has condemned Indonesia's "indiscriminate use of force" in last Friday's incident and urged that it refrains from "any action that complicates or magnifies the dispute, or impacts the peace and stability of the region", reported Reuters on Monday.
Rear Admiral Taufiq on Tuesday defended the navy's actions saying it was "not deploying a war fleet".
"Our naval presence is meant to defend our sovereignty, and we do not want to be provoked," he said.
He also echoed President Joko Widodo's stand that Indonesia will defend its sovereignty but it will aim to do so without affecting its ties with other countries.
Bejiing's recent actions within Indonesian waters, however, has raised considerable consternation among lawmakers.
Golkar Party politician Tantowi Yahya during a closed-door session in Parliament on Monday expressed concern over China's repetitive excuse and its risk of undermining Indonesia's sovereignty over its waters, reported The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
In response, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi reiterated that all of those incidents took place within Indonesia's EEZ and, accordingly, the Indonesian navy has taken the appropriate enforcement action.
She also said Indonesia's territorial claim over its EEZ off the Natunas was based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and thus, Indonesia's territorial waters do not overlap with China's.
"This world is organised based on international laws and this world is not organised by historical-based claims," said Ms Retno, referring to Beijing's "traditional fishing grounds" claims.
"Unclos is the ocean charter, historical facts cannot annul Unclos, but in reverse Unclos annuls historical facts."