Dozens of Chinese vessels that were fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in Natuna are leaving the area.
The Indonesian military confirmed that the vessels were heading north on January 9, after days of stand-off. “The Chinese fishing vessels are gone, they are leaving the area heading north,” said Indonesia’s Commander of Joint Defense Area Command I, Vice Admiral Yudo Margono.
The Chinese vessels entered the Natuna waters near the disputed South China Sea in December 2019. In response, Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta and deployed eight warships as well as four fighter jets to the area on January 7.
The Chinese vessels left a day after Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to Natuna on January 8.
President Joko Widodo visited the fishing-rich waters around the Natuna islands that border the South China Sea, most of which are claimed by China – despite competing claims from other Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
On January 8, Widodo told reporters on Natuna Besar island that the disputed waters belong solely to Indonesia. “We have a district here, a regent, and a governor here. There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia,” Widodo said.
The confrontation began after a Chinese coast guard vessel escorted Chinese fishing boats which entered the disputed waters near the Natuna islands claimed by Indonesia. Beijing claimed it has “historic rights” in the region and that fishing boats had been carrying out “legal and reasonable” activities.
Where is the Natuna Sea?
In July 2017, Indonesian officials announced they had renamed the waters northeast of the Natuna islands at the far southern end of the South China Sea the ‘North Natuna Sea’. They emphasized that they were not renaming the entire South China Sea, but only the part that falls under their claimed EEZ. This EEZ however, overlaps with China’s nine-dash line – Beijing’s claim that surrounds as much as 90% of the contested waters.
Indonesian fisheries enforcement and navy vessels have sought to arrest Chinese trawlers in the area of overlap in separate incidents over the past few years. In each of these incidents, China Coast Guard vessels intervened or protested against the seizures of the vessels and the arrest of their crews.