China just ran into a problem with its only friend in the South China Sea

ChinaGetty ImagesA Chinese naval missile destroyer Shenzhen on November 28, 2007.

China has just had a run-in with its only friend in the South China Sea, and that could complicate matters for Beijing as it continues to try to take a more aggressive stance in the region.

On March 19, an official Indonesian vessel detained a Chinese fishing trawler that was operating in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the coast of the Natuna islands.

The islands are on the periphery of the South China Sea, and their EEZ abuts China’s self-declared Nine-Dash Line, which Beijing uses to mark its claims in the region.

In the past, Indonesia has not had any issues with China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the region. However, after Jakarta seized the Chinese trawler, things got awkward quickly for the two nations.

While towing the Chinese vessel towards the Natuna islands, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed the Indonesian vessel in an attempt to free the Chinese boat, Bloomberg reports.

This led to Jakarta issuing a protest to Beijing over a violation of the “sovereignty of Indonesia’s territorial waters.” Indonesia also managed to take the eight crew members of the Chinese vessel into custody.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said that she emphasised the good will between Indonesia and China while filing the protest.

However, Marsudi also said “I stress that Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea dispute, so we are asking for a clarification about the incident.”

In response, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a press briefing that the entire incident between Indonesia and China occurred in “traditional Chinese fishing grounds.”

Despite the efforts at conciliatory language by Marsudi, tensions are likely to continue to escalate between Indonesia and China following this incident. According to the Associated Press, Jakarta has signalled that it will press ahead with prosecuting the Chinese fishermen over Beijing’s demands that they be released.

And Arif Havas Oegroseno, the Indonesian official in charge of maritime security, has called out China’s claims to having a traditional history of fishing in the region.

“It’s very fake, ambiguous, in terms of since when, since what year does it become historical, traditional?” the Associated Press reported.

This escalation in tensions puts Indonesia in a difficult position. It has a minimal role in the South China Sea, and until now has wanted to keep solid relations with China. Bloomberg notes that China is Indonesia’s largest single trading partner and a major funding of infrastructure in the country.

However, Indonesia has vowed to take a strong line on its territorial integrity — especially in the maritime sphere. And the grounds off the Natuna islands is home to a third of Indonesia’s gas reserves, according to Bloomberg.

Indonesia’s current diplomatic tensions with China put it in a similar position to much of the rest of the region. Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan all also protest China’s claims in the region and have attempted to push back on Beijing’s territorial claims.

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