Indonesia has dispatched one of its naval ships close to a Chinese survey vessel that is operating in its exclusive economic zone, BenarNews has learnt.
The U.S. aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, passed as close as 50 nautical miles to the same Chinese vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 10, on Saturday, and broadcast its location as it did so during a sail through the southern part of the South China Sea.
On Monday, the Indonesian navy deployed the KRI Bontang (907) to the same area, ship tracking records show, suggesting it was closely following the Chinese vessel’s movement, close to an important oil and gas field. Both vessels were still in the area on Wednesday. The Haiyang Dizhi has been operating there since late August, about 90 nautical miles north of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.
The Indonesian navy and the Maritime Security Agency, also known as Bakamla, were not available for comment on Wednesday but the tracking records analysed by BenarNews show the Indonesian ship has been tailing the Haiyang Dizhi 10, and was at one point just 1.7 nautical miles away from the Chinese ship.
The KRI Bontang (907) is essentially a replenishment-at-sea tanker but it is equipped with weapon systems including cannons and machine guns.
The choice of the supply ship may be intentional, says Sunaryo, a maritime affairs expert at the University of Indonesia.
"We are facing a dilemma. If we deploy warships, it will be seen as aggressive, but (the non-military) Bakamla doesn't have many large ships."
‘Flexible but firm’
On Tuesday, a Bakamla spokesman when asked told BenarNews,, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that “there had been no violation of shipping rules” by the Haiyang Dizhi.
Wisnu Pramandita said the Chinese survey ship “had its AIS [automatic identification system] on and could be monitored”.
“It was probably a normal passage,” he said.
The seemingly evasive reply is “not unexpected,” says Richard Heydarian, a regional affairs analyst. “Indonesia, and some other countries in the region, have been leading a flexible approach when dealing with China.”
“They prioritize diplomatic tools and avoid confrontational language in order to not jeopardize the relationship with China, but also try to be firm when needed to protect national interests,” Heydarian said.
The same approach was witnessed in January 2020 when Indonesia’s strong but restrained and diplomatic response helped repel dozens of Chinese ships fishing illegally in the same North Natuna area, according to Heydarian.
However, Indonesia may be facing a greater challenge this time.
Apart from the survey ship, Kompas newspaper quoted local fishermen as saying that they sighted at least six Chinese vessels, including a 7,500-ton destroyer – the Kunming (172) – in the North Natuna Sea on Monday.
A regular presence
Bakamla’s Secretary Suprianto Irawan was quoted in Indonesian media as saying that there has been a regular presence of Chinese coastguard ships around the Tuna Block where the Haiyang Dizhi 10 is operating, an important oil and gas field in the Indonesian EEZ.
Although Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the northern part of the Natuna Sea overlaps with the so-called “nine-dash line” that China uses to demarcate its sweeping claims in the South China Sea – a position not recognized by international law.
Since Aug. 31, the Chinese vessel has been conducting a survey near the semi-submersible oil rig Noble Clyde Boudreaux, which was commissioned to drill two wells there until mid-November, energy industry media reported.
Chinese ships have been accused of harassing neighboring countries’ oil exploration activities but China always insists they are operating within China’s jurisdiction.
The Indonesian government has been under immense domestic pressure to protect national interests, and the public urge action.
"As an archipelagic state, we have designated sea lanes for continuous passage of foreign ships, but we must not take our EEZ for granted. If we don't do anything, our claims could be undermined,” warned maritime expert Sunaryo from the University of Indonesia.
“This is happening in the Natuna with foreign ships in our EEZ. Some parties are taking advantage of lax security there."
A country’s EEZ extends 200 nautical miles beyond its coastlines and provides it certain resource rights to the waters there – hence the sensitivity of a foreign nation conducting a survey in such an area.
But Bakamla officials have been saying that they have very limited resources and are poorly equipped with just 10 ships and no aircraft.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.