Several months ago I wrote on The Strategist about a March 2013 incident between Indonesian and Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels in the South China Sea. Local Indonesian news sources confirmed the incident but Indonesian Defense Ministry officials reportedly ‘claimed that the fishing boat incident never took place’. Several weeks after my post was published, Commander Agus Heryana, commander of the Indonesian naval base in Tanjung Pinang, stated that the situation in the South China Sea remained safe despite ‘efforts blowing it out of proportion’, noting that ‘the navies deployed in the area are not operating aggressively’.
The latter part of this statement is undoubtedly accurate: the incident didn’t directly involve any naval vessels from either nation. But one’s left wondering about the veracity of, and rationale behind, the Defense Ministry’s denials about the incident. Taken together, the comments suggest a possible effort to downplay such incidents or to limit their exposure in the media. Like its neighbour Malaysia, Indonesia has preferred to employ quiet diplomacy in regard to the South China Sea disputes more broadly, keeping any confrontations or encounters at sea out of the press for fear of needlessly stoking tensions or damaging its image of neutrality.
If this is official Indonesian government policy, it has now become abundantly clear that this isn’t the same for the Chinese government. China’s state run news media outlet CCTV4 recently released an eight-part documentary on China’s activities in the South China Sea. Two of the episodes include footage of patrols by Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels in disputed waters off the Natuna Islands, as well as a previous incident that occurred there on 12 May 2010. Many of the details contained in the documentary, including geo-location coordinates of the Chinese vessels on particular dates, hadn’t been publicly available before the documentary aired.
Unlike the March 2013 incident, the 2010 incident directly involved Indonesian naval vessels. The vessels were threatened at gunpoint by two Chinese ships from the Bureau of Fisheries and Law Enforcement Command (FLEC or CFLE) and eventually forced to relinquish a Chinese fishing vessel that they’d attempted to apprehend. The FLEC vessels, numbered 301 and 302, had been ordered by their higher command to ‘rescue the fishing boat immediately’. Such action is in keeping with FLEC’s tasking to ‘safeguard maritime sovereignty’ and its ‘accompanying fishery protection strategy’. According to the video, this strategy had shifted in recent years from one of merely patrolling disputed areas to conducting direct escorts. ‘Wherever the fishing boats go, the FLEC ships follow them there’, the narrator says, referring to them at one point as their ‘guardian angels’.
When FLEC vessels arrived on the scene, they observed a ‘foreign frigate’ undertaking what’s portrayed by the narrator as a ‘harassment attack’ on the Chinese fishing vessel. The narrator erroneously describes this ‘frigate’ as about 80 meters in length and displacing 1800 tons, as well as being armed with ‘rocket guns and automatic cannons’.
Based on the CCTV4 footage, this vessel isn’t a frigate but a much smaller Todak class Patrol Boat (PB) of the Indonesian Navy. While it doesn’t possess ‘rocket guns’, the 454 ton Todak PB does have two Bofors naval cannons (57 and 40mm), which are capable of rapid fire rates accurate to a distance of several kilometers, according to Jane’s Fighting Ships. Though physically much smaller, had the Todak decided to engage, it almost certainly could have defeated the two larger FLEC vessels with its superior weaponry and range of fire.
But it didn’t. Instead, the Indonesian sailors could only watch on as the FLEC crew moved to battle stations dressed in full combat gear then threatened them with what appear to be 12.7mm deck guns. After Liu Tanrong, the Deputy Director of FLEC’s South China Sea regional division, declares over bridge to bridge communications that the waters are part of ‘the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the People’s Republic of China’, and that ‘the FLEC ships have a right to undertake normal fishery management here’, the FLEC ships begin offensive maneuvers, ostensibly to ‘prevent the attack from the foreign frigate’. These coercive actions included the Yuzheng 301 cutting in front of the Todak PB to position itself between it and the Chinese fishing boat, directing the latter to draw closer to the 302 for protection as it confronted the Indonesian vessel. The result, according to the narrator: ‘Without any further plan, the foreign frigate had no choice but to leave’.
What the Chinese documentary proudly displays as ‘normal fishery management’, is in reality the very same ‘gunboat diplomacy’ China has berated foreign powers for practicing against it during China’s own ‘century of national humiliation’. Contrary to the statements by the narrator, the Indonesian patrol boat did have a choice, and fortunately for all parties involved it chose not to engage. That this choice was influenced by Chinese coercive actions is however a distinct possibility, and the incident could easily be regarded by the Chinese side as successful in that the Indonesian ‘frigate’ was compelled to cease its ‘harassment attack’ against the Chinese fishing boat. The documentary certainly presents it as such.
The CCTV4 documentary also includes footage of a patrol conducted in the South China Sea on 1 May 2013 by FLEC vessel Yuzheng 310. This is the exact same vessel, patrolling the exact same waters, where the incident reportedly denied by the Indonesian Ministry of Defense had occurred only a little over one month previously. Only this time there’s no incident, just the FLEC vessel and a Chinese fishing boat using the exact same trawling technique in those exact same waters that had led to the incident in March.
The Yuzheng 310 takes the CCTV4 camera crew aboard the Chinese fishing vessel, where they film the boat’s catch before returning. There’s no mention in the documentary that these are disputed waters, or that these actions are regarded by Indonesian officials as illegal. There’s no Indonesian naval or coast guard presence this time to enforce any alternative position. There’s only a Chinese fishing boat, escorted by their FLEC ‘guardian angels’, fishing within China’s EEZ. Together they’re working to ensure that these ‘normal’ operations are conducted safely, without interference from foreign rivals and competing narratives in the world news. China’s efforts to shape the narrative in this way have so far proceeded largely unopposed, though the question now arises whether or not countries like Indonesia can afford to maintain a low profile on these issues when China has so clearly chosen otherwise.
Scott Bentley is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW. His research focuses on security strategies in maritime Southeast Asia. Image is screenshot from CCTV4 documentary.