North Natuna: Viewpoints of Indonesian Interest

  1. Introduction

Entering 2020, Indonesia was immediately shocked by the news of the entry of Chinese Fish vessels into the waters in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone in North Natuna. The news simultaneously controlled the discussion and discussion in the mass media and social media in Indonesia. However, the narrative of reporting by the mass media and public conversation in the media has become chaotic in the public especially when the facts in the field and understanding of the treatment and provisions of law enforcement in maritime zones (sea regimes) have not been widely understood. This led to an unhealthy public debate, potentially SARA and Xenophobia, and dividing the community groups. Thus we witness the narrative of the complete expulsion of foreign ships, especially Chinese ships in this regard, from Indonesian waters is one of the most discussed tag lines. The noise was created on social media between those who claimed to be ‘nationalists’ versus those who were labeled as ‘Chinese conformists’. Handling such issues, coupled with factors of public opinion, the internet, and social media, make the response and handling of the government and related institutions/ministries more careful, clear, and intelligent. Whet

  1. Chronology of Violations of Chinese Fishing Vessels in North Natuna

The fact that Chinese fishing vessels entered waters in the area of ​​the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone in North Natuna is true. This is based on information from BAKAMLA RI and the Indonesian Navy which states that Chinese fishing vessels began to be detected in waters near Natuna around December 10, 2019, and entered the Indonesian Continental Landing area from December 15, 2019, and continued monitoring of these vessels by BAKAMLA RI. But then a number of ships inside were detected shutting down their AIS (Automatic Identification System) equipment. Knowing this, Bakamla immediately mobilized the ship to inspect the location and met with the ships which were at the North Natuna ZEEI on December 19 and carried out the expulsion. Even though I got away, the Chinese fishing vessels re-entered the Indonesian EEZ territory, precisely on December 23, 2019. It should be underlined by the fact that based on BAKAMLA radar data, the number of Chinese vessels detected was only a dozen. But when in the field, the Chinese fishing vessels numbered more than 50 ships and were escorted by two coast guard ships and one PLA Navy warship type. BAKAMLA then mobilized KM Tanjung Datuk ships and made radio contact to ask the ships to leave Indonesian waters. But they refused the request by asserting that they were in their territorial waters and fishing.

  1. Indonesia’s Dilemma of Interest and Law Enforcement in North Natuna

Before entering into the discussion, it is important to recall how the provisions and law enforcement in the Exclusive Economic Zone is based on the provisions of international and national law. The provisions on the Exclusive Economic Zone in international law are discussed in the 1982 UNCLOS Chapter V (five) provisions from article 55 to article 75 ( The provision has also been ratified by Indonesia in the presence of Law No. 5 of 1983 concerning Exclusive Economic Zones, Exclusive Economic Zones. Based on these provisions, the Exclusive Economic Zone is basically seen as an international sea where we only have sovereign rights there, not full sovereignty as in the territorial sea. In Article 4 paragraph 1 of the Law, it is explained that the Indonesian sovereign rights referred to in this Law are not the same or cannot be equated with the full sovereignty owned and exercised by Indonesia over the Regional Sea, Nusantara waters and Indonesian inland waters. Likewise, based on the above-mentioned rights, sanctions that are threatened in the Indonesian Exclusive Economic Zone are different from sanctions that are threatened in the waters under the sovereignty of the Republic of Indonesia. Other rights based on international law are the right of the Republic of Indonesia to carry out law enforcement and hot-pursuit of foreign vessels that violate the provisions of Indonesian laws and regulations concerning the Exclusive Economic Zone.

From the above explanation, our law enforcement officers can only make arrests, or other actions in accordance with applicable regulations, only if there is a violation of applicable international law, such as exploitation of fishery resources, data collection, propaganda at sea and at sea crimes the other. Thus, it is not right if we prohibit foreign vessels, both fishing vessels, and others, from entering the waters of Indonesia’s EEZ in North Natuna. Ships, of any kind, have the right to cross or enter the territorial waters freely as long as they do not commit certain violations. Based on this regulation, thus, data collection and preliminary evidence of violations are also the main keys that must be held by law enforcement officers in the Indonesian sea. Based on fact reports on the ground from the Indonesian Navy and BAKAMLA RI, there are at least three things that we can conclude, that:


  1. Chinese Ships Chinese fish violated because of exploitation of fisheries resources in the waters of Indonesia’s EEZ, North Natuna.
  2. Coast Guard ships and Chinese frigate ships are also considered to have committed violations because they obstruct law enforcement efforts by Indonesian law enforcement officials.
  3. The fact that the Chinese Coast Guard ship is ignoring Indonesian law enforcement is evidence that the deterrence of our law enforcement officers in the region is still not strong and needs to be improved.

However, even if based on the provisions of international law and national law in effect that the activity of foreign ships, including China, is legal and free as long as it does not carry out certain activities that are prohibited based on relevant legal provisions. Indonesia’s prudent attitude towards every activity of Chinese ships in the waters of the EEZ region or the South China Sea region, in general, must continue to receive high attention – regardless of whether it is carrying out illegal activities or not. This is especially related to the long-term intentions and interests of China and the trends in Chinese attitudes or activities in the region. Therefore, quoting from Suwardi (1985), the problem of law enforcement at sea cannot be separated from the problem of enforcement of sovereignty at sea. Even if the two terms have different meanings, they are inseparable. Enforcement of sovereignty at sea includes law enforcement at sea, thus the notion of upholding sovereignty is basically broader than law enforcement itself. Unlike the law violations that occur on land, law violations at sea are not always purely lawless in the sense of qualifying criminal acts. At sea, Lex Specialis applies. In many cases, the determination of whether a violation has occurred is based on a consideration of whether the national interests of the coastal state are impaired or not. thus the notion of upholding sovereignty is basically broader than law enforcement itself. Unlike the law violations that occur on land, law violations at sea are not always purely lawless in the sense of qualifying criminal acts. At sea, Lex Specialis applies. In many cases, the determination of whether a violation has occurred is based on a consideration of whether the national interests of the coastal state are impaired or not. thus the notion of upholding sovereignty is basically broader than law enforcement itself. Unlike the law violations that occur on land, law violations at sea are not always purely lawless in the sense of qualifying criminal acts. At sea, Lex Specialis applies. In many cases, the determination of whether a violation has occurred is based on a consideration of whether the national interests of the coastal state are impaired or not.

Therefore the notion of law enforcement at sea must be understood in a broad sense. Not just as a judicial process and aimed at ensuring law and community order, but at the same time in the context of defending and protecting national interests in and or by sea, both inside and outside the territory of the country. For Indonesia, law enforcement at sea is intended primarily to be the implementation of the principles of the archipelago in the context of implementing the archipelago insight which embodies the archipelago’s archipelago as a political, social and cultural, economic and defense-security entity. This is the reason why enforcement of UNCLOS 1982 provisions is very important for Indonesia. Because there is the entry into force of the 1982 UNCLOS to be an international amplifier and recognition of the existence of Indonesia as an archipelago, the Republic of Indonesia, and an insight into the archipelago. In addition, the following are a number of Indonesia’s interests in North Natuna and the China Sea as a whole:


  1. China: Long-term interests and intentions

As mentioned earlier, it is important for Indonesia to remain cautious and vigilant about any activities of Chinese ships in any form. This is mainly related to the long-term interests and intentions of China in the region or even the global region in general. Looking back at China’s long-term intentions, we will be brought back to the ideas that were initiated and presented by Xi Jinping at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress. Xinhua noted that Xi Jinping’s important statements at the congress consisted of one core idea and two basic points, namely: (1) The idea of ​​”the Chinese Dream” or “the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation”, and (2) Two basic points consisting of (a) a deepening of reforms in a comprehensive manner, and (b) enforcement of mass lines (Quarterdeck Vol.12, March)

There are several things we can work on to help us understand China further and see its projections going forward, namely:

  • Emphasis on the centrality of the Chinese Communist Party
  • Emphasis on efforts or struggles to realize ‘the national rejuvenation’ as a core idea
  • Comprehensiveness in ideas, theories, paths, and strategies used with the emphasis on ‘China Way’ or ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’

These three issues, generally describe how China’s long-term intentions or ideals and how China approaches or ways to achieve these goals. In the first point, emphasizing the CCP’s centrality, meaning that any activity, be it military or civilian elements, elements of the central government in Beijing or local authorities in certain regions is a comprehensive extension of Beijing’s interests.


The Second point, Belt and Road Initiative, a term we have often heard, is a very big vision that is an important part of China’s core idea “the Great Rejuvenation of Chinese Nation” which has a long history since the leaders of the People’s Republic of China formed themselves. This vision is also China’s future or long-term ambition to restore the place of Chinese civilization in the world. In this case, China claims area in the South China Sea, including ‘maybe’ in the North Natuna ZEEI region, is as follows: (a) territorial claims – historic fishing ground and the so-called nine-dash line; (b) first ‘stage – China’s first island chain strategy; (c) which must be protected in any way, by; (d) anyway (China’s way).

The third point, China’s way. Socialism with Chinese characteristics. Primarily, there is no clear definition of what is meant by the term above. However, learning and seeing patterns that have prevailed and have taken place then here are some examples of identified behavior (Quarterdeck May 2018. Pg. 10):

  • Debt Trap
  • Extended quasi territory and Chinese recovery overseas – via Chinese property business or infrastructure sites or projects other countries; Chinatown and the Chinese diaspora, etc..
  • Sharp Power: ‘recruit’ or ‘influence’ the media, academia, Chinese resettlement or community overseas, and public officials, politicians, or bureaucrats in other countries.

“Gray zone” is a term given to the state of being between war and peace, without a premise for conflict with other countries have no reason to make a military intervention. By using the tactic, a country can deploy military forces under the cover of civil forces in combination with psychological, judicial, and communications tactics to turn an undisputed area into a disputed zone.

A little explanation of what is meant by gray zone operations before entering into the strategic discussion. Gray zone operations (or hybrids) can essentially be understood as operations that involve elements outside of military force, are subversive and utilize empty spaces (for example in law) to achieve their goals, are provocative, and non-lethal. ) but not to the point where they can give an ‘enemy or object’ they have the justification for giving a firm response, warlike responses, or triggering an open war. Maritime gray-zone campaign or operations in this case generally always relate to claims of sovereignty and sovereign rights over certain geographical features or water areas. But the gray-zone activities in the maritime environment that are carried out may have ulterior causes. That is as one way to create additional pressure on a country rather than to find a solution to a particular maritime issue.

First, it (China) has transformed and militarized commercial and fishing boats. China has a big fleet of modern maritime surveillance and fisheries law-enforcement boats. Satellite images show that China has ever sent 200 to 300 fishing vessels to Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in Vietnam’s Spratly Archipelago (Huyan, Anh. 2019).

China is one of the countries that has implemented this gray-zone strategy significantly, not only in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea and others. The militarization of the fishing fleet (maritime militia) is one of them.


  1. Discussion: Interests of Indonesia, Geopolitics and the Indo-Pacific Region

From the discussion of some of the points above, thus, there is one point that needs to be underlined and understood by law enforcement, policymakers, political officials, and the public. That, concerning the issue of China and northern Natuna yesterday, the ongoing trend that we must face in the South China Sea is the naval campaign versus the maritime gray zone operation. This trend of the situation requires delicate responses and full calculations in various fields where the priority interests of the national interests of Indonesia are the reference. Taking lessons from various incidents involving China and other countries in the South China Sea, including incidents involving Indonesia directly, we realize that there are limitations to our law enforcement officers at EEZ, both the Navy and BAKAMLA when we faced China there as explained in the previous point. That law enforcement officers cannot expel fishing vessels and Coast Guard from China in Natuna ZEE waters even though we clearly understand the intentions and strategic interests of China in these waters (gray zone operations), but can only make arrests when ships -The ship is real, or is suspected of committing, for example, the theft of fish and must be accompanied by preliminary evidence. Therefore, moving to options at a strategic level is one way out. Even so, option voters at this strategic level will certainly need a more careful calculation, comprehensive and comprehensive to be able to produce the most effective and well-orchestrated responses. This step becomes very important and crucial especially when a country is confronted or faced with gray-zone operations.

A better understanding of the dynamics and geopolitics of the world is also one key that must always be held by Indonesian policymakers and public officials. Within a greater scope of the South China Sea, the Southeast Asian and Indo-Pacific regions are the two immediate geopolitical (and foreign policy) circles of Indonesia. Once again, if we look at the world map of this region, we find that the two regions are predominantly maritime (maritime realm). Thus the mindset used must also be maritime – no longer a land mindset. This region is also the most dynamic region in the world that continues to experience geopolitical and geostrategic shifts.

The two big players in the Indo-Pacific are once again China and the United States. If we conclude, in simple terms the following are the main interests of the two major countries (note the picture):



  1. Closing and Suggestions

Law enforcement at sea, especially the Exclusive Economic Zone in North Natuna, is very important for Indonesia. But on the other hand, we also must not forget that in the end, law enforcement at sea does not stand alone and cannot be separated from the protection of national sovereignty and national interests. As such, it is wrong to forbid the full activation of Chinese vessels from entering or through Indonesian waters (EEZ). But Indonesia also must still be careful and continue to pay attention to any activities there, especially concerning what is called the ‘maritime grey zone operation’ conducted by China. Because of this trend, it seems that China will continue to be used in the South China Sea – and other regions,

The strong and decisive approach taken by Indonesia since 2016 has arguably helped provide a respite for the potential for incidents in the South China Sea as a whole. But that does not mean that China will give up its claims in the region given China’s long-term ideals (BRI and the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation) above, where the South China Sea region is the first ‘stage’ in China’s interests. Because of the limited capability of Indonesian law enforcement at sea, in this case at ZEEI in North Natuna, law enforcement officers and Indonesian fishermen can continue to be the subject of ‘maritime gray zone operations or harassment’ when China wants to re-impose its interests there – which it has been repeated in January 2020 and until today.

Related developments that might be possible or made by China in the South China Sea are (Goldrick, James. 2018. p.25):

  1. Declaring claims on islands (natural or artificial) in the South China Sea
  2. Involvement or inclusion of civil groups in uninhabited islands to strengthen claims in the LCS
  3. Increasing the intensity of ‘fake fisherman’ or maritime militia operations
  4. Looking at China’s approach to “lawfare”, it suggests that domestic law enforcement and port control mechanisms can be used as gray zone techniques, both specifically directed at certain country-flagged vessels directly and against any merchant vessels conducting trade transactions with that country.
  5. Interfering with or even interfering with fiber optic cables under the sea can also be one of the tools or methods in grey-zone operations, something that China has also done to the communication flow of Indonesian law enforcement vessels in North Natuna.

Then, what kind of response – including policy responses, can Indonesia choose or do in the face of the potential maritime grey zone operations in China ?. Indonesian “Free-Active” Foreign Policy or Politics certainly provides room as well as limits for response options or policies that Indonesia can take at the strategic level. Thus, a delicate approach and calculation are crucial in every decision and response that can be chosen by Indonesia when dealing with China in North Natuna. We must be smart to pedal between two / many corals. Below are several policy recommendations that can be carried out by the state when dealing with grey zone operations (Goldrick, James. 2018. P. 26-28):

  1. Policy: Ensure that the full context of a gray-zone campaign is understood
  2. Policy: Reply to a gray zone campaign with resolute and public countermeasures made with a full understanding of the risks
  3. Policy: Maintain civil maritime security forces capable of effectively matching a gray-zone campaign without requiring immediate recourse to military assets
  4. Policy: Ensure that civil-military maritime security capabilities are properly coordinated to allow graduated responses in the event of escalation
  5. Policy: Ensure that there is an official awareness of global trends in international maritime law and be nationally agile in responding to them
  6. Policy: Commanders at all levels must be kept fully aware of national intent and empowered to use their initiates in difficult and ambiguous circumferences and the need for the rules of engagement or ROE that allows them to accomplish it.

Facing the issue of China in the North Natuna Sea in the end not only the issue of law enforcement at sea alone. And responding to gray-zone operations in the maritime domain will never be easy for any country. Even so, a well-coordinated and decisive response can bring the situation so that it can be controlled and at the same time, demonstrating our readiness at various levels (operational, strategic, legal, institutional, and so on) can make ‘enemies’ think again to take their actions. Strengthening and enhancing the capabilities of Indonesian law enforcement officers, in this case, the Indonesian Navy and BAKAMLA, is one of the most crucial points, especially to avoid the potential for harassment or ‘irregularities’ against our law enforcement officers or our fishermen in North Natuna by China. Although of course it is well known that achieving the ‘ideal’ posture and capability will require time and resources that do not come immediately. But precisely because of that we must also be more clever in dealing with their operations. Therefore, the same response, as is done now, cannot always produce the same deterrent effect on the Chinese side.

Why do we need a strategy in the first place? Clausewitz gives us the answer. The strategy is the necessary response to the incapable reality of limited resources. No entity, regardless of size, has unlimited resources. Strategy, therefore, is about making choices on how we will concentrate our limited resources to achieve a competitive advantage.

By combining approaches or using other influence tools that we have (besides diplomatic tools) – both at the operational and strategic levels is the solution. Effective management of information flows and the dominance of local and global narratives can also be one of the keys that can be very helpful when dealing with ambiguous situations that result from gray-zone operations of ‘enemies’ – especially in the ITE era today.




Mangindaan, Robert. 2019. “South China Sea Conflict: Indonesia Point of View”. PPT

Goldrick, James. 2018. “Gray Zone Operations and the Maritime Domain”. Australian Strategic Policy Institute Journal.

Suwardi 1985. “Law enforcement in the Sea in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone”.


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Heni Sugihartini

View posts by Heni Sugihartini
Heni Sugihartini was born in Sumedang on November 21, 1993. In 2011 she studied at Program of Study in International Relations, Padjadjaran University, Bandung. She started her career in July 2016 as editorial staff and analyst at the Defense and Maritime Studies Forum (FKPM).
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