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South China Sea: Indonesia Summons Chinese Ambassador As Fishing Dispute Escalates

China’s ambassador to Indonesia is being summoned over a standoff involving a trawler in the South China Sea, an incident an international expert described as so serious it could alter Indonesia’s foreign policy.

Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s minister for fisheries and maritime affairs, told reporters she would summon the Chinese ambassador, Xie Feng, on Monday to discuss a Chinese fishing trawler accused of illegally fishing in Indonesian waters.

Indonesian authorities attempted to capture the trawler on Saturday and arrest the Chinese crew. But they were stopped by a Chinese coast guard boat that reportedly “rammed” the trawler and pushed it back into the South China Sea, according to a report Monday in the Jakarta Post. Indonesia still has the crew in custody, Susi said.

China’s foreign ministry disputes Indonesia’s version of events. It issued a statement saying the trawler was operating “in traditional Chinese fishing grounds” before it was “attacked and harassed by an armed Indonesian ship”, prompting the Chinese coast guard to offer assistance.

“The Chinese side immediately demanded the Indonesian side at once release the detained Chinese fishermen and ensure their personal safety,” the ministry said.

The incident reportedly occurred about 4.3 kilometres off Indonesia’s Natuna islands, off the north-west coast of Borneo in the South China Sea. Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the Natuna coast slightly overlaps with the large expanse of water and islands claimed by China in the region.

Susi said the incident occurred well inside Indonesia’s EEZ. “We will summon the Chinese ambassador to discuss the issue [on Monday],” the Jakarta Post reported her as saying on Sunday. “We respect China, but we must also maintain our sovereignty.”

“We want to avoid a much more serious incident, so we settled on just arresting the eight crew members. The ship got away but we have the eight men in custody to help us investigate this incident,” Susi said.

“I think this could be very serious,” Aaron Connelly, a specialist in south-east Asian politics and the Lowy Institute in Australia, said on Monday.

In 2010 and 2013, he noted, there were similar incidents involving Chinese and Indonesia boats near the Natuna islands. But at the time, Indonesia tried to keep the maritime clashes quiet, apparently concerned about disrupting Indonesian-Chinese relations.

This time, Susi – who is popular in Indonesia because of her crackdowns on illegal fishing – went out of her way to publicly criticise China’s actions. Connelly said it was “stunning” that she would hold a media conference on Sunday to say she was summoning the Chinese ambassador, noting that such diplomatic protestations were usually handled by the foreign minister.

“This could shift Indonesia foreign policy” under Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Connelly said, noting that Jokowi has sought to balance public concerns over the South China Sea with the desire to attract Chinese investment.

By STUART LEAVENWORTH Mar. 21, 2016 on The Guardian

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