Indonesia and the South China Sea: Jakarta’s war on illegal fishing
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Indonesia and the South China Sea: Jakarta’s war on illegal fishing

TO an uninterested observer, the lines on the map of territorial claims in the South China Sea looks like the work of a child with a box full of crayons. The 1,400,000 square mile corner of the Pacific Ocean is subject to at least nine different territorial disputes (some of which go as far back as the 1880s) involving up to nine sovereign countries competing for access to, among other things, fish, petroleum resources, and shipping lanes. Although talks have been conducted almost as long as the disputes have existed, many countries involved in these disputes have taken to other ways of attempting to settle the argument.

In its latest bid to assert its rights in the area, China has been using fishing boats. One such vessel was fired upon by the Indonesian coast guard last week off the coast of Borneo, ostensibly while plying its trade. China said that the ship was operating as usual in “China’s traditional fishing grounds” when it caught hot lead from an Indonesian force in the area, leading to one Chinese sailor’s injury and the temporary detention of the crew of another Chinese boat. Although this is the first time someone’s been injured, it’s not the first time a Chinese fishing boat has drawn fire from Indonesian forces. The first such incident was in March, when Indonesian forces used small arms against a three-hundred-ton Chinese fishing vessel before the crew was detained.

Experts have pointed out that the use of force against such incursions is a significant departure from Indonesia’s policy up to now. Incidents in previous years have resulted in little more than a brief detention of the ships in question and their sailors. However, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo seems bent on flexing his country’s maritime muscles by escalating the crackdown on illegal fishing begun two years ago. Minister of Fishery and Marine Affairs Susi Pudjiastuti has followed his lead. The “tattoo-clad chain-smoker” continues to receive a great deal of domestic support for taking a hard line and increasing measures to repel illicit fishing, including literally blowing up dozens of vessels owned by illegal fishing operations.


Indonesian President Joko Widodo is taking a hard line against illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. Pic: AP.

Luckily, there is some hope for a less violent solution. Earlier this month the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA) went into effect, giving the thirty signatories (including the European Union) new tools for taking action against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) operations. The $23.5 billion a year industry continue to take a significant toll on the global economy as well as wreaking havoc upon the local ecosystems where illegal fishing operations occur. Among other provisions, the agreement allows member states to designate specific ports for foreign fishing operations, and requires foreign fishing vessels to submit to inspections of their harvest and logbooks. The regulations will apply to vessels that are simply in port to refuel, as well as to fishing tenders that provide services to fishing vessels on the high seas.

The treaty could have the potential for defusing the tensions between Chinese fishermen and the Indonesian navy, but not without China’s participation, which has so far refused to sign. What’s more, as critics of the treaty point out, it will only work if the relevant governments are willing to enforce its provisions. Signing on to and enforcing the provisions of the treaty would signal Beijing is serious about maintaining good ties in the ASEAN region, while a continued refusal will lend credence to the opposing frame of thought, that Beijing wants the entire South China Sea for itself.

While the treaty has the potential to foster stability between China and Indonesia in the South China Sea, it is also a potential win for human rights in other countries. On this front, Thailand has been far and away the main culprit. The world’s largest seafood exporter is already in hot water with the EU over its turning a blind eye on the practice of using slave labor in illegal fishing operations.  The Associated Press exposé of the practice led to the freeing of 2,000 slaves working in the IUU industry, the arrest of a dozen slave traffickers, and the seizure of millions of dollars in equipment. However, months of talks with the EU have done little to satisfy them that Thailand is serious about reforming labor practices. Already sitting on a “yellow card” from the EU and facing a devastating Union-wide ban on Thai imports, the treaty may be a useful tool for cleaning up the industry and getting back in the rest of the world’s good graces.

The treaty could also help preserve long-needed food security for many of the world’s coastal nations both within and beyond the South China Sea. IUU operations have taken a particularly heavy toll on waters off the Horn of Africa. For example, a 2013 study found that exactly one of the 130 ships fishing off the coast of Mozambique actually originated from the country. The country decided to take measures to protect its coast by buying a flotilla of patrol vessels using government guaranteed loans contracted by Mozambique Asset Management (MAM) in order to fight the $35 million it loses each year to illegal fishing.  However, shortsighted international creditors and the IMF have recently accused the country of excessive government spending, suspending financial aid and undermining the country’s battle to feed its population. With the treaty now in place, Mozambique and other countries can rely on international cooperation to crack down on IUUs.

While the PSMA may provide some solutions in the global fight against illegal fishing, without participation from China the treaty relative to the South China Sea is simply another piece of paper, little better than the fevered crayon scribblings of a child.