TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The trespassing of Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels in the Natuna waters off the Riau Islands in December 2019 reminds Presidential Chief of Staff Moeldoko of the history of Sriwijaya Kingdom centuries ago. As the kingdom was preoccupied with the war with the Ancient Mataram in Java, its control over the Malacca Strait fell into the hands of the Chinese.
"Learning from history, we must always be vigilant. Let us not be distracted by internal problems that we neglect the matters that affect our sovereignty, especially because the North Natuna Sea is so expansive that it is often deserted,” Moeldoko said.
The presence of dozens of Chinese fishing boats escorted by Chinese coastguard and frigate ships in Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) spurred tensions between Jakarta and Beijing. It also prompted President Joko Widodo to pay another visit to Natuna. Previously in June 2016, he had a closed cabinet meeting aboard the navy warship KRI Imam Bonjol in the North Natuna Sea following the Indonesian navy’s interception of a Chinese vessel in the waters rich in fish and oil and gas reserves.
Moeldoko said that the President’s visit to Natuna is aimed at easing the public disquiet caused by a perceived violation of Indonesia’s sovereign territory by the Chinese vessels. “Actually, the (Chinese) fishermen had just entered the area under our sovereign rights or EEZ,” said Moeldoko, who accompanied Jokowi on the one-day trip to Natuna on January 8.
Since being re-appointed as the chief of the presidential staff office last October, Moeldoko, 62, has had his hands full. Almost every day, the former armed forces commander, together with State Secretariat Minister Pratikno and Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung, accompanies Jokowi on his daily official activities. Assisted by the deputy chief of staff and two special staffers, the Kediri-born retired general must shoulder the heavy responsibility of making sure that scores of President’s campaign promises are fulfilled in the next five years.
Last week, Moeldoko sat down with Tempo’s Wahyu Dhyatmika, Mahardika Satria Hadi, Aisha Shaidra and Retno Sulistyawati at the office of the presidential staff in the Bina Graha Presidential Palace complex, Jakarta. During the interview that lasted around an hour, he discussed the Natuna incident, his additional duties as well as his rumored connection to the former director of the scandal-hit Asuransi Jiwasraya. Excerpts:
How did the government respond to China's claim over Natuna waters?
We have a shoreline that stretches 81,000 kilometers with the territorial sea extending 12 nautical miles and the continental shelf extending 200 nautical miles. It means we have an extraordinary exclusive zone. We have the sovereign rights to exclusively manage all the resources in the zone, not just fish but also oil and gas. As regards Natuna, China wants the Nine-Dash Line area (the area in the South China Sea claimed by China as its historic rights)
We cannot allow that. We comply with the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. It is binding and indisputable and all the signed countries, including China, must adhere to that.
The President said that the Chinese ships have only entered the EEZ, not our territory yet as if to make light of the issue. Is that what he really wanted to convey?
From what I saw, public anger was rising as though the Chinese fishermen were already in our sovereign territory while in fact, they had not. They were only in the sovereign rights zone or EEZ. We have full sovereignty over up to 12 miles (from the baseline) whereas our sovereign rights cover up to 200 miles (from the coastline of the furthest island). We have the right to manage the natural resources there. The president made the statement in order for the public to understand the matter better. It doesn’t mean we were being lax, no. We exercised power and expelled the fishermen who came with their coastguards for backup. But the President also wanted to explain that the fishermen had not yet violated our sovereignty. Sometimes it’s not easy for the public to understand that.
What are the regulations for foreign vessels which enter the EEZ?
They can enter as long as they don’t take anything. They may pass through it. However, if they stop and take our resources then they violate the rules. That’s the difference.
So, there should be an agreement if foreign ships want to fish in Natuna?
UNCLOS stipulates so. There must be a bilateral agreement – whether for profit sharing or for other forms of cooperation. And not only with China, but also with other countries wishing to do exploration there, for example, ExxonMobil (a US-based oil and gas exploration company).
Actually, how vulnerable the North Natuna waters are?
We should not interpret the importance of Natuna from the aspect of natural resources only. It is also critical from the geopolitical aspect. In the EEZ aspect, we talk about North Natuna. But in a greater context, it’s about the South China Sea. In terms of resources, we look at economic values. But there are also other values to consider such as the country’s existence, sovereignty, security.
How does the government navigate the Natuna issue at the time when the economic relationship with China is going well?
First, through the “soft” diplomacy approach followed by measured actions in the field. If we don’t act, it gives the impression that the government is weak. But there will be no shooting unless we are forced to. So, we must not be engaged in military actions. I think the measures we’ve taken are good. They have withdrawn the ships to the north. The most important of all is as to how this kind of situation will be managed in the future. We don’t want to be in a cycle of tension and rapprochement.
Is it true that the government plans to send 120 fishing boats from the northern coast of Java to the Natuna Sea so as to prevent the waters from being deserted?
That has already been communicated to the political, legal and security affairs coordinating minister and the maritime affairs and fisheries minister. However, more comprehensive discussions are needed as we also need to think about the fishermen there. That’s the social aspect. From a logistic point of view, we need to prepare refueling points and cold storage facilities for storing the catches. The President urges all to exploit the resources fast and well. We must not let the area to be exploited by others. All the countries can observe that there are tons of fish there and once they know the place is empty, of course, they are tempted. Therefore, we mobilize our fishermen. In addition to filling up the empty sea, our fishermen can also detect and report immediately (if foreign boats enter our waters).
The foreign minister and the defense minister issued different responses to the tension in the Natuna Sea some time ago. What do you think of that?
I don’t need to comment on that. Actually, the responses were not different but the contexts were different. That’s enough. The issue will develop again if I make comments.
Read the full interview in Tempo English Magazine