A mid-March incident in which two armed Chinese coastguard ships forced an Indonesian patrol boat to release a Chinese fishing trawler it was towing to land after catching it fishing illegally within its Natuna Island EEZ may turn out to be a pivotal juncture in Indonesia’s policy toward the South China Sea issue.  Indonesia’s official position is that it is not a party to the South China Sea dispute since it has no overlapping claims to islands with China, and rights to waters are derived from rights to land under UNCLOS. Indonesia responded to China’s 2008 publication of its nine-dash line map by filing a protest with UNCLOS and requesting Chinese assurances that its claims did not intrude into the Natuna Island EEZ, something Beijing declined to provide. 

Until recently, the Indonesian government has been reluctant to publically state that there is a conflict with China since doing so might be construed as recognition of the legitimacy of the nine-dash line map, threaten its position as an honest broker between China and the ASEAN claimants, and jeopardize relations with Beijing. The Yudhoyono administration played down similar incidents in 2010 and 2013, but Jokowi’s high profile commitment to combatting illegal fishing and protecting Indonesia’s maritime rights made that impossible. 

Fisheries Minister Susi Pudiastuti stated that China has “sabotaged” Indonesian efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region while Foreign Minister Marsudi summoned the Chinese Ambassador and lodged an official protest. Chinese officials responded by claiming that the fisherman were operating within “Chinese historical fishing grounds” something Indonesian officials argue has no legal basis under UNCLOS.   

With the two sides using different justifications for their claims and neither indicating any willingness to back down, Sino-Indonesian tensions are likely to rise.  he incident comes during a period of rising nationalism in Indonesia, with parliamentary official demanding that President Jokowi adopt a firm stance toward China.  hina’s willingness to use its growing military force to assertive its controversial claims in the South China Sea combined with greater public attention to the issue in Indonesia make it likely that Indonesia will be drawn further into the South China Sea conflict.