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This week in Jakarta: Hague ruling, fishermen and counterterrorism

This week in Jakarta: Hague ruling, fishermen and counterterrorism
Published 15 Jul 2016 

Jakarta moved to secure territory in the South China Sea this week, following a landmark international tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines over China. At the same time, Indonesia's own problems with the Philippines came to the fore as protests erupted over the repeated abduction of fishermen. Meanwhile, President Jokowi swore in a new police chief in the wake of a terrorist attack in his hometown over the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

A UN-backed tribunal in The Hague on Tuesday ruled that it found no legal basis for China's claims to territory within a 'nine-dash line' in the South China Sea. The decision was a victory for the Philippines, which had brought the case to the international tribunal in 2013. The nation celebrated by releasing balloons in the national colours into Manila Bay. As for Indonesia, the reaction was more subdued, but nonetheless supportive of the ruling.

Until recently, Indonesia has tended to steer clear of disputes in the South China Sea, preferring to engage via ASEAN rather than face China directly on the matter. But in recent months. clashes have broken out with Chinese fishing boats in Indonesian waters, prompting an assertion by China of 'overlapping claims' to parts of Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone. Unlike the Philippines, Indonesia did not have to wait long for an international ruling to back its own claims to the waters — the country's Foreign Ministry released a statement on the day of the ruling this week calling for all sides to respect the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was reportedly perceived by China as a bold move. [fold]

An even bolder move was seen the next day, when Chief Maritime Minister Rizal Ramli announced plans to increase economic activity in the area, including by sending hundreds of fishermen with the promise of boats and subsidised housing to establish 'the biggest fish market in Southeast Asia'. Ramli did not hide the fact that the move was intended to cement Indonesia's sovereignty over its internationally recognised territory. This follows a visit just prior to the ruling by President Jokowi and key ministers on a navy warship, in a clear reminder of Indonesia's stance. 

Beyond the regional disputes with China, Indonesia is currently facing its own problems with the Philippines and breaches of borders at sea. Workers' unions this week protested outside the Embassy of the Philippines in Jakarta demanding stronger action against the Abu Sayyaf Islamist militant group, which is holding hostage 10 Indonesian sailors. As many as 24 Indonesians have been abducted in the area this year. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi this week urged action by the Philippines and Malaysia to secure their waters.

The Indonesian military (TNI) is now preparing troops to assist in releasing the hostages. Retno has also proposed sending armed sea marshals to accompany export ships crossing the waters to avoid further abductions. Even if these actions are directed towards Abu Sayyaf,  it's worth wondering how the militarisation of Indonesia's approach to this issue in the region will be received by China.

Meanwhile in Jakarta this week, President Jokowi appointed Tito Karnavian as the new National Police Chief. The former counter-terrorism commander enters the position in the wake of a terrorist attack in the president's hometown of Solo, Central Java, over the Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitri) holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. The attack took no lives besides the lone perpetrator's, but drew hundreds to demonstrate against terrorism and extremism on Solo's streets this week. The new police chief is expected to bring special attention to tackling crimes related to terrorism, drugs and corruption. 

Photo by Flickr user Mara de Pater.

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