Indonesia defends navy for firing warning shots at Chinese poachers in South China Sea

A member of the Indonesian navy standing before the Chinese trawler Hua Li-8 in Belawan, North Sumatra, on April 23, 2016.
A member of the Indonesian navy standing before the Chinese trawler Hua Li-8 in Belawan, North Sumatra, on April 23, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - Indonesia has defended its navy for firing over the bow of Chinese fishing boats caught poaching in its waters off the Natuna islands in the South China Sea on Friday (June 17).

Coordinating Minister for Political, Security and Legal Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said Monday (June 20) he has been briefed about the incident and confirmed that the shooting at sea was in accordance to the rules of engagement.

His comments comes after China registered its "strong protest" on Sunday to Indonesia over the detention of a Chinese fishing boat and its crew of seven as well as the warning shots fired by the Indonesian warship KRI Imam Bonjol which apparently wounded a Chinese fisherman from another vessel.

Mr Luhut said there was no need for Indonesia to respond to the protest from China. "What is important is that we find a solution (to resolve the issue) amicably, we want to maintain good relations with China, but without sacrificing our sovereignty."

The navy had detected radio chatter among 12 Chinese vessels fishing illegally in Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) on Friday but its warships only managed to intercept the China-flagged Yueyandong Yu 19038 after shots were fired across the fishing boat's bow.

An EEZ is a zone extending 200 nautical miles from shore over which a state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The EEZ of a handful of littoral states in the South China Sea overlap with China's nine-dash line, feeding into the territorial disputes between the Asian powerhouse and Taiwan as well as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei in South-east Asia.

Indonesia, however, was never a party to the dispute, but it was recently dragged into a similar territorial fracas with China, after Beijing said in March that the waters in Indonesia's EEZ are part of its "traditional fishing grounds".

Mr Luhut said Jakarta has never acknowledged Beijing's claim of the traditional fishing grounds within Indonesia's waters but he hopes to "continue discussing with international maritime law experts to find an elegant way of resolving" the issue.

"Actually there is no reason for Indonesia to have issues with China because Indonesia is in a position that is clear in terms of the rules and the EEZ, everything is clear," he added.

Separately, Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said in a series of tweets on Monday that the Indonesian warship was right in safeguarding the sovereignty of its waters.

"We don't shoot for no clear reason," tweeted Ms Susi. "Protecting (the) sovereignty of your country is a must."

She also said that "the theft of fishes cannot be good for the relationships of two countries".

Vice President Jusuf Kalla told Reuters that Indonesia would send a message to Beijing demanding that it respect his country's sovereignty over waters around the Natuna Islands.

The last incident in the Natunas on Friday was at least the third where the Indonesian Navy has intercepted and detained a Chinese vessel and its crew for fishing illegally in Indonesia's waters in the South China Sea, said Colonel Arif Badruddin, commander of Ranai Naval Base in Riau Islands province.

According to Col Arif, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels with registration numbers 3303 and 2501 also tried to intervene in the arrest of the Yueyandong Yu at sea but were unsuccessful because three other Indonesian warships arrived to back the KRI Imam Bonjol.

"This is the third incident where Chinese Coast Guard boats have tried to intervene in our arrests," he said, adding that the Yueyandong Yu and its crew, one of whom is a woman, are now at Ranai Naval Base for further investigations.

Last month, the navy detained a China-flagged vessel, Gui Bei Yu 27088, and eight Chinese crew members suspected of fishing illegally in the Natuna Sea - also after having to fire warning shots.

Similarly in March, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel intervened and freed the Chinese fishing boat, KM Kway Fey, after it was held by an Indonesian patrol.

Jakarta later summoned the Chinese envoy to explain its coast guard's actions.