Confrontation between Chinese and Indonesian vessels in the South China Sea

IN Imam Bonjol. Photo: Lanteta Mersah/Wikipedia

Situated some 600 nautical miles south of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, Natuna Island, part of the Riau island group, has long been claimed by Indonesia, and is of considerable economic and strategic value to Jakarta.

The island abuts offshore oil and gas reserves, as well as abundant fishing grounds, and Indonesia continues to upgrade its military facilities there.

Jakarta therefore reacted strongly, in late December 2019, when Beijing, in pursuance of its proactive stance in the SCS, sent a fleet of at least 30 Chinese fishing vessels, escorted by Mischief Reef-based China Coast Guard (CCG) patrol ships, and intruded into the island’s contiguous waters. The escorting vessels included one of the CCG’s most heavily armed shups, the converted former PLA Navy frigate Hai Jin 3303.

Indonesian responses included a rapid official visit to the island by President Joko Widodo, overflights by Boeing 737 maritime patrol aircraft, the deployment of a flight of F-16 fighters, and the dispatch of an eight-strong Indonesian Navy (IN) warship flotilla. The IN force is known to include three ex-East German Navy Kapitan Pattimura-class corvettes, Tjiptadi, Imam Bonjol and Teuku Umar.

Following some close encounters between IN and CCG vessels, the Chinese fishing vessels, and their escorts had all reportedly left the area by January 8, 2020.

The Chinese action appears to have been a test of Indonesian resolve, and analysts expect Beijing to stage further tests in future.

Trevor Hollingsbee

Maritime security expert and columnist, Trevor Hollingsbee was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Senior Superintendent with the Hong Kong Marine Police, Assistant Secretary for Security in the British Hong Kong Government Security Branch, and Intelligence Analyst in the UK Ministry of Defence. As an independent defence and security analyst he has had some 1,500 articles on maritime security, and geopolitical topics, published in a range of international journals and newspapers. He is an Associate Fellow of the Nautical Institute, and a past Vice-Chairman of the Institute’s Hong Kong branch.