April 20, 2023
JAKARTA – Despite the December finalization of the Indonesia-Vietnam Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) observers have said that poaching by Vietnamese fishing boats is still rife in some of Indonesia’s most resourceful waters, with government officials asserting that illegal fishing remains Jakarta’s number-one maritime threat in 2023.
Having tracked the movements of Vietnamese fishing boats and Hanoi’s state-owned vessels in the North Natuna Sea since January, Jakarta-based think tank the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI) said that this year’s movement patterns showed little to no differences compared with the pre-EEZ period.
“The pact should have reduced the number of Vietnamese vessels in these waters, […] Not much has changed since the demarcation of the EEZ boundaries,” IOJI senior advisor Andreas Aditya Salim told a Monday online discussion.
In December, Jakarta and Hanoi after 12 years of intensive talks finalized the negotiations on the determination of their EEZ boundaries per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It was hoped the long-awaited pact would reduce conflicts between Indonesian and Vietnamese fishing vessels, as well as improve the maritime security of both countries.
To date, though, the EEZ agreement has yet to be endorsed by Indonesia.
Prior to the agreement, Vietnam and Indonesia had for years struggled to resolve the boundary dispute resulting in numerous conflicts revolving around rogue fishing.
These issues were most rife in the North Natuna Sea, one of Indonesia’s richest maritime areas and which borders Vietnam and Malaysia.
Analysts have previously pointed out the latter fact as an indication that the bilateral agreement was of high sensitivity. Over three months since its finalization, neither Indonesia nor Vietnam has published a clear explanation or chart on where exactly the border line starts and ends, leaving analysts to make estimates based on UNCLOS and continental shelf boundaries.
“Vietnamese illegal fishing boats are still rife in the North Natuna Sea. We have spotted some Vietnamese state vessels around the area as well, and they have done nothing about it. We can see that the Indonesian boats have been pushed further south of the sea,” Andreas said.
Read also: Vietnamese-flagged illegal fishing vessel caught in North Natuna Sea
Rear Adm. Bambang Irawan of the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) also said on Monday that illegal fishing remained the country’s most pressing maritime security threat. Since 2019, Bambang added, Indonesian authorities have captured 136 illegal Vietnamese fishing boats in the North Natuna Sea, but that it was not yet sufficient to keep the waters free from poachers.
“According to our Maritime Security Index, in 2022 Indonesia scored 53, which is categorized as barely satisfactory. It is clear that we need fresh ideas to improve this score,” he said.
But monitoring the contested area is not a straightforward task, said Rear Adm. Erwin Aldedharma, the commander of the Navy’s First Fleet in charge of monitoring the seas surrounding Natuna Islands.
Saying that the Navy would neither confirm nor deny the IOJI’s findings, Erwin explained that his fleet had not received enough support from the government, and that simple tasks such as deploying ships to monitor the area had been stifled by a lack of resources.
“The Navy stands ready to act fast and in a coordinated manner. But the conditions of today are far from ideal for us to do everything we are supposed to do,” said Erwin during the discussion.
“We require support, such as food and fuel. […] We do not have nearly enough fuel to even monitor the area properly.”
A layered challenge
The persisting problem in the North Natuna Sea is both a manifestation of domestic woes and a reflection of external tensions, added House of Representatives Commission I speaker Muhammad Farhan in the discussion.
Indonesia is a nonclaimant state in the South China Sea territorial disputes. But that some parts of its EEZ in the Natuna waters were included by China in its sweeping so-called nine-dash-line map cannot be ignored, he said, as it would have heavily affected how the Indonesian government would respond to security threats in that particular area.
In January, just weeks after the EEZ agreement with Vietnam, ship-tracking data showed that a Chinese vessel had been sailing in the Natuna Sea’s Tuna Bloc gas field and the Vietnamese Chim Sao oil and gas field. The Chinese ship’s activity swiftly prompted Indonesia to send a warship to the area.
Read also: Indonesian Navy sends warship to monitor Chinese coast guard vessel
Ahmad Almaududy Amri, a Foreign Ministry staffer also attending the discussion, said that it was best that all parties “exercise restraint”.
“Since the EEZ agreement is not yet endorsed, it has not come into power just yet. It still requires the authorization of many organizations in charge of the area,” he said.
“As such, the principles of UNCLOS must be upheld, and it is important that all countries exercise restraint to avoid any escalation in conflict.”