Indonesia intercepted a Chinese survey ship that had been sailing near its islands with an on-board tracking system turned off, prompting the coast guard to escort the boat out of the country’s exclusive economic zone, officials said Thursday.
The Xiang Yang Hong 03 switched off its automatic identification system (AIS) three times while sailing in Indonesian archipelagic sea lanes, with the captain later saying it was broken, according to the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla).
“If they had sailed continuously without carrying out suspicious activities, it wouldn’t have been a violation. But during this voyage, their AIS was turned off and this raised suspicion,” First Adm. Suwito, the director of operations for Bakamla, told reporters.
“We asked why the AIS was turned off and their answer was that it was broken. We let it pass because the ship did not stop,” he said.
The incident occurred amid concerns over Beijing’s increased militarization in the contested South China Sea, and as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up a visit to Indonesia on Wednesday.
On Thursday in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would impose visa restrictions on executives of state-owned Chinese enterprises, and members of the Chinese military and communist party deemed “responsible for, or complicit in” the large-scale reclamation, construction, or militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea.
The restrictions would also apply to those linked to “the PRC’s use of coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources” in the waterway, Pompeo said.
Separately, the U.S. Commerce Department announced it was adding the China National Offshore Oil Corp., a state-owned firm, to a blacklist of companies that “threaten U.S. national security,” because CNOOC was “helping China intimidate neighbors in the South China Sea,” the agency said.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to territorial disputes over the South China Sea among several countries, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the maritime region that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
Indonesia has had several stand-offs with China over allegations that Chinese fishing boats, escorted by China Coast Guard ships, operated in its EEZ off the Natuna Islands.
Indonesia is the only archipelago-nation that has designated archipelagic sea lanes. All vessels, including warships, have the right of innocent passage in them as long as they conduct continuous and expeditious transit and do not pose a security threat.
But Indonesia requires all ships passing through archipelagic waters – both Indonesian and foreign – to activate their automatic identification systems and report any damage to those systems to a coastal station.
Suwito said the intercepted Chinese ship’s identification system was not activated for 13 hours while sailing in the North Natuna Sea, 34 hours in the South Natuna Sea, and 5 hours in the Karimata Strait at an average speed of 10.9 knots.
A Bakamla patrol ship was alerted to the Xiang Yang Hong 03 as it passed the Sunda Strait around 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday with its tracker on.
At the time, the Chinese vessel was 40 nautical miles (about 45 miles) from a Bakamla ship that was on its way to join a search-and-rescue team looking for the wreckage of a Sriwijaya Air Boeing 737, which had crashed into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff from Jakarta last Saturday.
Bakamla’s KN Nipah 321 approached the Chinese ship and opened communications with its captain around 8 p.m.
Bakamla spokesman Wisnu Pramandita said the patrol crew decided not to investigate the ship further because of poor weather, and escorted it out of the Indonesian exclusive economic zone.
Still, Siswanto Rusdi, director of the National Maritime Institute (Namarin), called Bakamla’s action “excessive.”
“Only if they stopped and refused to get out can Bakamla take immediate action. As long as there is no evidence that the ship has stopped or carried out activities in our EEZ, no violation has been committed,” Rusdi told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Any ship – merchant ship or warship – can pass through our EEZ without having to report. This is a common practice in the shipping world,” Rusdi said.
“We should not be too reactive, or we will be accused of being paranoid by the international community.”
The intercepted Chinese ship did not violate Indonesian territory but may have stopped, said Beni Sukadis, a military observer at the Indonesian Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies.
“In Archipelagic Sea Lanes I, II and III, ships of any type are allowed to pass, whether military, commercial or foreign-owned, without notifying Indonesia. But they can’t stop,” Beni told BenarNews.
“I suspect that the [Chinese] ship had stopped, but this is for Bakamla to prove.”
Meanwhile earlier this month, the Indonesian coast guard acquired 20 submachine guns for 10 of its patrol boats.
The weapons are 12.7-milimeter guns but the coast guard has also received approval from the Ministry of Defense to purchase 30-mm caliber submachine guns, Bakamla spokesman Wisnu told BenarNews.
In June, the House of Representatives (DPR) defense committee gave Bakamla the green light to buy military-grade weapons to strengthen coast-guard monitoring of Indonesian waters.
Lawmaker Bobby Adhityo Rizaldi said at the time that Bakamla only had 10 patrol boats without a naval gun system, while Chinese coast guard vessels were equipped with weapons with a firing range of more than 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).
“Bakamla is only armed with light rifles with a range of under 1 kilometer, which is of course insufficient with the dynamics of the North Natuna Sea,” Bobby said.
Beni, an Indonesian military observer, said Bakamla had too few ships to patrol the sprawling Indonesian coastline, but that problem could be resolved by good coordination with the Navy.
“There should be discussions with the Navy on different areas where Bakamla and the Navy can operate. Currently it’s not clear who is in charge of which areas,” said Beni.
Last November, the Navy announced that it would move its combat squad’s headquarters to the Natuna Islands to protect Jakarta’s territorial interests near the South China Sea, amid incursions in national waters by Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats.
Moving the headquarters of the Guspurla combat force to the Natuna chain would enable it to respond faster to incidents at sea, compared with the HQ’s current location in Jakarta, the navy said.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.