China has called on Indonesia to release eight crew members from a fishing boat that was seized in mid-March. The tense standoff could be the result of a new phase of lawlessness in China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
On the 19th, a Chinese coast guard vessel entered the sovereign waters of Indonesia off one of the Natuna Islands. Just 2.7 miles from shore, the Chinese vessel rammed a Chinese fishing boat, the Kway Fey, to free it as it was being towed by an Indonesian craft. Indonesia had just seized the Kway Fey for illegally fishing in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
China’s embassy in Jakarta claimed the Chinese craft was in a “traditional Chinese fishing ground,” but there is no such concept either in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing has ratified, or customary international law.
Beijing’s infamous “nine-dash line” draws a sweeping arc across official maps, suggesting Beijing claims about four-fifths of the South China Sea. Indeed, no other nation in the world recognizes the sea boundaries China claims, and all nations bordering that body of water dispute them.
What is notable about the incident last month, however, is not that Chinese fishing craft are exploiting other countries’ territorial waters—they have been doing so for years—but that Beijing has just provoked Indonesia, a country described as China’s “only friend in the South China Sea.”
President Xi Jinping has calculated that it’s to China’s advantage to relentlessly pressure its neighbors—friends and foes alike. Some see this as a strategic folly because, until now, China’s aggressiveness has achieved little more than to rally and unite its neighbors against it.