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Indonesia Seeks to Balance Sea Claims, Economic Interests


The Indonesian Navy destroyed a foreign fishing boat it had seized this year. The move is part of an effort to increase enforcement in waters Indonesia claims as its own.

Indonesia says its armed forces will expand their watch around a group of islands in the South China Sea to keep away Chinese fishing crews.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in October that his government would never compromise on claims around the Natuna Islands.

The Natunas are a group of about 270 very small islands and land formations northwest of Borneo.

Chinese ships often sail in nearby waters. China claims most of the South China Sea and the area’s natural resources, such as fish, oil and natural gas.

Widodo visited the Natuna islands during military exercises in September and October.

An Australian researcher says many Indonesian officials believe they can press territorial claims to the islands and develop economic links with China at the same time. David McRae is a researcher with the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne.

“There’s a strong feeling among many Indonesian officials that it can both assert its rights over the area it claims as its exclusive economic zone around the Natunas and develop strong economic ties with China at the same time.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, Sept. 4, 2016.

Last year, President Widodo called on China and Indonesia to increase two-way trade to $150 billion by the year 2020. That would double total trade between the countries from 2014 levels, according to the World Bank.

The two sides already have strong trade ties. Indonesia imports more from China than any other country. China also is Indonesia’s second biggest export partner.

But Indonesia’s cabinet has developed plans to claim the area around the Natunas as an exclusive economic zone. China says its boats have long fished in the same waters.

Indonesian fisherman oppose illegal fishing

Indonesians, especially fishers, dislike illegal fishing. Yet illegal fishing has become a problem in Indonesia because of a lack of enforcement around the country’s 13,000 islands.

Yet Indonesia has been increasing enforcement efforts in the South China Sea. And Widodo has said his country should harvest fish and recover the gas that are said to be in and around the Natunas.

In March, a Chinese coast guard vessel prevented Indonesian officials from stopping a Chinese ship. Two months later, Indonesia’s navy stopped a Chinese fishing boat. Then, in June, the navy fired on another Chinese boat. One sailor may have been injured.

Researcher David McRae notes that China has not protested or threatened economic measures against Indonesia.

Experts say Indonesia mainly has tried to prevent problems around the Natuna islands, instead of reacting to them. Indonesian officials also avoid discussing past incidents or making warnings like the Philippines did from 2010 to early this year. In 2012, China reduced trade and cut back on visitors to the Philippines.

Trade between the sides continues

Last year, Widodo and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed eight agreements. They were partly meant to increase Chinese involvement in the development of roads, ports and other infrastructure. And this year, both sides agreed to work together on energy, agriculture and building an industrial park.

As construction projects become too competitive at home, Chinese companies are looking overseas, experts say. The Chinese government has described Indonesia as part of a “maritime silk road.” China wants to develop trade and relations with countries across this area, stretching from Asia to Europe.

Some experts say the “silk road” idea increases the importance of the ties between China and Indonesia. Natalie Sambhi is a researcher at the Perth USAsia Centre in Australia.

“Indonesia is an important component of the way China sees the strategic landscape in the Asia Pacific, particularly as a key state in Southeast Asia, and it would be a boon for China to maintain its relationships with Indonesia on the basis of its wanting to implement things like its 21st Century maritime silk road and its one belt, one road initiative.”

But some observers say Indonesia can press its territorial claims in the South China Sea because it does not depend much on China economically.

Carl Baker directs programs at the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, a foreign policy research group. He says Indonesia is less dependent on China than other countries in Southeast Asia.

“Indonesia feels less concerned about Chinese response because it’s less dependent on Chinese invest and infrastructure development than some of the other more dependent countries in Southeast Asia.”

Indonesia is a major exporter of commodities, such as agricultural products. The country also has a large market at home of 250 million people. Total exports were valued at more than $176 billion dollars in 2014.

Indonesia has been a member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank since January. China is the bank’s biggest shareholder. However, Indonesia’s biggest export partner is Japan.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Ralph Jennings reported this story for VOANews.com. Mario Ritter adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

exclusive – adj. available to only one person or group

authorities – n. people who have power to make decisions and enforce rules

strategic – adj. relating to a long-term plan to reach a goal

boon – n. something that is helpful, that provides a good outcome

implement – v. to put in place or into action

initiative – n. the power or opportunity to do something before other do it

vesseln. a ship or boat

commodities –n. goods that are traded widely

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