Clashes between Indonesia and Vietnam reflect wider regional unease


Tensions between Indonesia and Vietnam over fishing rights have come to the fore as Indonesia continues to claim exclusive rights to waters off the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea.

In April 2019, a Vietnamese Fisheries Resources Surveillance vessel was in collision with an Indonesian Navy corvette.

Indonesia claimed the corvette had been deliberately rammed, prompting the Indonesian government to warn it would resume its policy of sinking vessels held for illegal fishing.

The escalating tensions came two months after the Indonesia Navy had expelled two Vietnamese surveillance vessels from Indonesian waters claiming they had shown ‘hostile intent’.

Assessment and Analysis

Indonesia has seized almost 500 foreign fishing vessels since 2014, more than half of them from Vietnam.

Unresolved boundary disputes mean the potential for confrontations is never far away.

Indonesia, of course, is not only in dispute with Vietnam. Its navy has also confronted Chinese fishing boats, accusing them of fishing within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

And the Natuna Islands are not the only flashpoint. Further north in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines have their own long running disputes.

Vietnamese fishing boats, meanwhile, claim to have been harassed, rammed and even sunk by Chinese ships.

Some observers suspect China is encouraging its fleets to fish in disputed waters as part of a strategy to assert control.

The consequences of a growing Chinese presence and the rapid depletion of fish stocks has forced fishing fleets to seek new fishing grounds, a development that fuels territorial disputes across the region.

China’s claims have not only generated tensions among the littoral states of the South China Sea. The United States has been watching with concern.

In May 2019, it sent two warships close to the disputed Spratly Islands. China protested saying they had entered its waters without permission.

The US response was that the ships were part of a wider operation to support ‘unfettered access to the region’s shipping lanes’ and ‘to challenge excessive maritime claims.’

The latest clashes between Indonesia and Vietnam over fishing rights are a subtext to wider concerns over China’s role in the region and to fears that some fish stocks are close to collapse.

Commercial shipping has been mainly unaffected but the gravity of the underlying issues suggest there is ample cause for concern.

This paper is intended as a general summary of issues in the stated field. It is not a substitute for authoritative advice on a specific matter. It is provided for information only and free of charge. Every reasonable effort has been made to make it accurate and up to date but no responsibility for its accuracy or correctness, or for any consequences of reliance on it, is assumed by Gray Page.

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