Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti lambasted the Vietnam Fisheries Resources Surveillance (VFRS) agency for allegedly disrupting the Indonesian Navy’s efforts to seize four Vietnam-flagged vessels for illegally fishing in Indonesian waters.
“We request that Vietnam’s government explain about and apologize for the incident,” said Susi on Monday in Bandung, West Java, adding that she would communicate with Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi about issuing a formal protest against Vietnam over the incident.
The incident took place on Sunday morning when two VFRS patrol vessels — Kiem Ngu 214214 and Kiem Ngu 214263 — allegedly “prompted dangerous maneuvers” to intercept the arrest of the four vessels for fishing illegally in the northern part of Natuna waters in Riau Islands, authorities said.
“The actions could have caused collisions so we warned them more firmly,” said Cdre. Irvansyah, the commander of the Indonesian Navy’s 1st Fleet Sea Battle Group.
The captain of KRI Tom-357 had to shoot a 76-millimeter cannon to drive the two VFRS patrol boats off, he added.
The Navy eventually managed to seize the four Vietnam-flagged fishing boats safely and put them under their custody.
The four were identified as BV 525 TS; BV 9487 TS; BV 4923 TS; and BVS 525 TS — the first three of which were caught while carrying a total of four cooling boxes full of fish.
Susi said it was not the first such incident in the past few weeks.
Last week, two VFRS boats allegedly tried to stop KP Hiu Macan 01, a vessel owned by the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry’s directorate general of marine resources and fisheries supervision, from arresting four Vietnamese fishing vessels also in North Natuna waters.
The Hiu Macan 01’s captain, Samson, said he decided to release the Vietnamese ships due to safety concerns, citing an incident last year when a Vietnamese coast guard vessel allegedly rammed into a ministry patrol boat — which at the time of the incident was trying to seize a suspected illegal fishing boat.
The fisheries ministry recorded that vessels from Vietnam were among the most seized fishing boats in the ongoing crackdown on illegal fishing. Since October 2014, the ministry has seized or sunk 276 Vietnam-flagged fishing boats for poaching Indonesian waters.
The Foreign Ministry said it regretted the recurrent “disruptions against Indonesia’s law enforcement measures by Vietnamese vessels”.
“The ministry has coordinated with related ministries and institutions, including the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, to overcome the issue with Vietnam,” ministry spokesperson Arrmanatha Nasir told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.
However, he did not comment on whether or not his office would send a formal protest to Vietnam.
Naval skirmishes commonly occur in the waters off Natuna Islands regency, especially with Vietnam, as Jakarta and Hanoi remain locked in a dispute over their overlapping exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the area.
In 2017, tensions flared following a maritime stand-off involving a Vietnamese coast guard vessel that had intercepted an Indonesian fisheries ministry vessel during its attempt to arrest five Vietnamese fishing boats.
Later that year, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo hosted talks in Jakarta with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, to mend ties that had been stretched due to such incidents.
Jokowi then visited Vietnam in 2018, which resulted in a bilateral commitment to conclude negotiations on maritime boundaries and to combat illegal fishing. However, skirmishes in the area continue to date.
Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan recently announced a plan to populate the Natuna Islands with fishermen from other regions such as Java in an effort to bolster Indonesia’s presence in the area.
The Natuna Sea is geographically closer to Vietnam and Malaysia, and borders the disputed South China Sea.