Indonesian authorities blew up 23 foreign fishing boats this week, claiming they were operating illegally in the archipelago’s waters.
The incident marked the third such sinking of foreign poaching boats by Indonesia.
Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti says the measure was taken to ensure the protection of national Indonesian sovereignty but there’s a bigger dispute at hand: the South China Sea dispute.
For centuries, several countries situated in East Asia, mainly Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, have tried to claim ownership over the territory and sovereignty in the energy-rich waters of the South China Sea.
China says it already owns most of the region – citing a “nine-dash line” it drew towards the end of the Second World War – but many reject the claim.
Indonesia officially entered the dispute last November when it felt threatened over its Natuna islands, some parts of which intersect with China’s so-called nine dash line. Indonesia deployed seven warships, saying the move was simply “a routine patrol program carried out by the navy to safeguard Natuna waters.”
Last month, tensions flared up between the two countries after an Indonesian patrol ship intercepted a Chinese fishing vessel off the Natuna islands. The Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, even summoned a Chinese diplomat, urging China to respect international law.
However, Vietnam and Malaysia weren’t given the same relaxed treatment, as it turned out this week.
Many are questioning as to why China’s boats are being intercepted while the ones from other countries were blown up into pieces.
Indonesia insists there’s no preferential treatment. “If there's illegal fishing carried out by an American boat, we will sink it too. It's the same," Susi said of the sinking of the 23 boats. “I believe the Chinese government will strongly support the Indonesian government in law enforcement against illegal violations committed by Chinese boats. We are waiting for their answer," she added.
In a separate, yet related, incident, Vietnam seized a Chinese vessel for encroaching into its territorial waters this week. Unlike Indonesia, though, Vietnam took the vessel with its captain and two sailors into custody instead of sinking the ship.