The Chinese survey ship that had been criss-crossing the North Natuna Sea is back in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) after a week’s retreat, ship tracking data shows.
Indonesia played down the presence of the Chinese Haiyang Dizhi 10, like it did when the vessel was operating in the area for almost the whole month of September.
But the Haiyang Dizhi 10 was seen being escorted by a Chinese coastguard ship and appeared to be carrying out unlawful research activity in Jakarta’s EEZ, said Imam Prakoso, a researcher at the Indonesia Ocean Justice Initiative (IOJI).
“It’s unlikely it was not conducting research activities, especially since they’ve been in and out of the area for a month. If you look at the pattern, they are likely to be active for a whole month,” Imam told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) requires governments to seek permission in advance for marine scientific research in another state’s EEZ, a requirement China often ignores.
“There must be firm action. Do they have permission or not? If not, it’s clearly illegal because we have clear rules regarding scientific research activities at sea,” Imam said.
The Chinese research vessel committed no violations, according to Lt. Col. Laode Muhammad, spokesman for the Indonesian Naval Fleet Command 1.
“The North Natuna Sea is the entrance to the ALKI [Indonesian Archipelagic Lanes] and the Singapore Strait. All foreign ships are allowed to pass, not only Chinese ones,” Laode told BenarNews.
“As far as international relations are concerned, we must avoid conflict and exercise restraint. If we insist on boarding their ship, they won’t accept it and there will be tremendous consequences,” Laode said.
On Monday, the Haiyang Dizhi 10 was spotted reentering the area near the Tuna Block, an important oil and gas field where a submersible rig contracted by Indonesia’s exploration partners is drilling appraisal wells.
By midday on Tuesday, the vessel was firmly back in the lawn-mowing grid it created last month while surveying the North Natuna Sea.
This area lies within Indonesia’s EEZ but overlaps with the so-called “nine-dash line” that China draws to claim most of the South China Sea but is not recognized by international law and is disputed by China’s neighbors.
The Haiyang Dizhi was operating in the area for almost the whole of September but left for resupply at Fiery Cross Reef, which China has reclaimed and developed into a flagship outpost.
Chinese ‘ship didn’t just pass’
Adm. Dato Rusman, commander of the Marine Combat Group, told President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in a video conference that Chinese and U.S. ships were detected in Indonesian waters but they were “conducting innocent passage.”
“Everything is safe and under control,” he added.
Indonesian authorities have constantly played down the presence of the Chinese ship, analysts say, prioritizing a diplomatic approach and behind-the-scenes negotiations.
For instance. Indonesia said last month that the Haiyang Dizhi 10 had not violated shipping rules. But, analysts had said, the Chinese vessel’s movement in a grid pattern showed that it was clearly engaged in research activities.
Similarly, IOJI’s Imam didn’t seem convinced by Rusman’s explanation on Tuesday about the latest Chinese incursion.
“The ship [Haiyang Dizhi 10] didn’t just pass [by],” Imam noted.
“It formed a grid pattern that covers part of the North Natuna Sea, which is within the nine-dash line that they [China] claim.”
The Haiyang Dizhi 10’s activities last month brought media and public attention, prompting Indonesian officials to send warships as well as conduct an air patrol.
On Tuesday, Indonesia’s Armed Forces Day, the navy held a combat readiness exercise in the North Natuna Sea. Six naval vessels, a maritime patrol aircraft, and a helicopter took part in the event.
Indonesia has also deployed a hydro-oceanographic research vessel, the KRI Rigel, to the area.
President Jokowi reportedly quizzed his staff about the presence of foreign ships off the Natunas and called on the armed forces (TNI) to be ready to deal with a range of threats.
“I … call on the TNI to be constantly prepared for a wider spectrum of threats, including violations of sovereignty, theft of natural resources at sea, radicalism and terrorism, as well as cyber, biological threats,” Jokowi said.
Governments in countries bordering the South China Sea are facing growing domestic pressure to defend national interests amid China’s assertive activities.
On Monday, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador to convey its position and protest “against the presence and activities of Chinese vessels, including a survey vessel, in Malaysia’s EEZ off the coasts of Sabah and Sarawak.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.