Restraint on all sides in the Natuna islands dispute would be best: The Jakarta Post

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi talks to journalists during a press conference in Jakarta.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi talks to journalists during a press conference in Jakarta. PHOTO: EPA

In its editorial on Mar 23, the newspaper urges all concerned to restrain themselves from over-reacting to the situation while facts are sorted out.

The government met with representatives of the Chinese Embassy over an "arrogant" incident involving Chinese coast guard vessels on Sunday (March 20), which a minister said had forcibly rescued a Chinese fishing boat that had been caught fishing illegally near Natuna Islands.

Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said the government would demand an explanation from China about the violation, adding that she had asked Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi to prepare a formal protest letter to Beijing.

Her spokesman said the government would check the exact position of the ship to determine Indonesia's actions.

Restraint on all sides would be the best initial reaction instead of the big temptation to be drawn into gungho moves against Big Brother China.

Determining the precise location of where the Chinese vessel Kway Fey was caught for illegal fishing is the first correct step in avoiding unnecessary additional tension in the South China Sea.

Minister Susi said Indonesia would ask China to return the ship, which was apprehended along with eight crew members on the grounds of using trawl nets.

Indonesia and its neighbours are increasingly wary of China's presence in the South China Sea, as disputing claims affect islands, features and fishing areas in the waters around China's claim of its "nine-dash line".

Indonesia has not formally declared itself among the claimants of disputed areas with China, while President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo is continuing his predecessors' efforts to woo Chinese investment.

However, Indonesia can no longer claim to be an honest broker amid the conflicting interests.

Its own interests are in the spotlight if China determines that the location of the Chinese vessel arrested on Sunday was outside Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Indonesia's naval base in Natuna maintains the Chinese vessel was found operating within an 83,515-sq-km area at the intersection of Indonesia's EEZ, its continental shelf boundary and China's nine-dash line.

China's Foreign Ministry told Reuters news agency that the trawler was operating in "traditional Chinese fishing grounds".

It added that China demanded Indonesia immediately release its fishermen, saying its trawler was "attacked and harassed by an armed Indonesian ship".

Given such opposing views, both sides must strive toward a peaceful settlement - not only regarding the Kway Fey arrest. Indonesia and China also should admit to the thorny issue of the Natuna Islands, as it is no longer realistic to play the affable good guy with China.

We support Minister Susi's efforts to end illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to help ensure our fishermens' welfare.

China's ambassador was among the foreign envoys who signed a Memorandum of understanding in 2014 with the minister to ensure sustainable fishing in the region's waters.

A mutually beneficial settlement should be in sight, on the basis of the common interest to feed the people of both countries.

* The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.