By Fergus Jensen and Bernadette Christina Munthe
JAKARTA: Indonesia “feels sabotaged” in its efforts to maintain peace in the disputed South China Sea and may bring its latest maritime altercation with China to an international court, a minister said on Monday.
Indonesia is not embroiled in rival claims with China over the South China Sea and has instead seen itself as an “honest broker” in disputes between China and the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
But an incident on the weekend involving an Indonesian patrol boat, and a Chinese coastguard vessel and fishing boat in what Indonesia said was its waters has angered it and led to its questioning of its work to promote peace.
“We feel interrupted and sabotaged in our efforts,” fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti told reporters in Jakarta after meeting Chinese embassy officials to discuss the incident in the Natuna Sea, an area between Peninsular Malaysia and the Malaysian province of Sarawak on Borneo island.
“We may take it to the international tribunal of the law of the sea,” Pudjiastuti said.
Pudjiastuti said the Indonesia patrol boat had fired warning shots in the air when it approached the Chinese trawler.
Indonesia’s Deputy navy chief, Arie Henrycus Sembiring, told the news conference the navy would send bigger vessels to back up its patrol boats in the region.
Indonesia says one of its patrol boats on Saturday attempted to detain a Chinese boat fishing illegally in its waters. Eight Chinese crew members were detained but the Chinese coastguard prevented Indonesia from confiscating the fishing boat.
On Monday, China’s foreign ministry repeated that the fishing boat was operating in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds”, again demanded the fishermen be released and added the Chinese coastguard vessel did not enter Indonesian waters.
China and Indonesia do not contest the sovereignty of the Natuna islands and the seas around them: both agree they are part of Indonesia.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying reiterated that on Monday.
“The sovereignty of the Natunas belongs to Indonesia. China has no objections to this,” Hua told a regular briefing.
Any maritime disputes should be resolved by talks and China also opposes illegal fishing, Hua said.
Earlier on Monday, Indonesia protested to China against what it described as an infringement of its waters by the Chinese coastguard vessel.
“We conveyed our strong protest (over) ... the breach by the Chinese coastguard of Indonesia’s sovereign rights,” Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters after she met Chinese embassy representatives in Jakarta.
Pudjiastuti said the eight detained Chinese fishermen would be processed in accordance with Indonesian law.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic shipping corridor, also rich in fish and natural gas, where several Southeast Asian countries also have overlapping claims.
While Indonesia and China are not disputing the South China Sea, tension between them does flare every now and then, usually over Chinese fishing boats.
In March 2013, armed Chinese vessels confronted an Indonesian fisheries patrol boat and demanded the release of Chinese fishermen who had been apprehended in Natuna waters.
Similarly, in 2010, a Chinese maritime enforcement vessel compelled an Indonesian patrol boat to release another illegal Chinese trawler.