Vietnamese Forces Block Indonesian Coast Guard

Riau Islands Province, in red. The Natuna Islands are the northeasternmost of the group. (Wikimedia Commons)

Published May 23, 2017 9:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, Indonesia's Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries claimed that a Vietnamese coast guard vessel aggressively interfered with the arrest of a group of Vietnamese fishermen near the Natuna Islands. 

On Sunday, an Indonesian patrol boat detained five Vietnamese fishing vessels on suspicion of illegal fishing, and it got under way to bring the arrested fishermen back to shore. According to the Indonesian account, a Vietnamese coast guard vessel approached and blocked the patrol boat’s path.

Three more Vietnamese coast guard vessels approached the scene, and one of them rammed one of the detained fishing vessels, causing it to sink. Indonesian servicemember D. Gunawan Wibisono was on board the stricken vessel, and he was rescued and allegedly detained by a Vietnamese coast guard crew. 

After capturing Wibisono, the Vietnamese forces demanded the return of all of the fishermen and the four remaining fishing vessels. The Indonesian patrol crew gave up 44 of the fishermen, but the Vietnamese coast guard did not release Wibisono. 

Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry secretary-general Rifky Effendi Hardjianto said Tuesday that his ministry is negotiating for Wibisono's safe return, and he expects that Vietnam will let him go shortly. Rifky suggested that the officer's detention was unintentional. "[He] was on the sinking fishing boat and that's why he was picked up," he said. 

Vietnam and Indonesia dispute whether the incident occurred in Indonesian waters. 

The Natuna Islands have become a flash point for maritime disputes in recent years, and Chinese vessels have often challenged the authority of Indonesian forces in the region. Last March, a Chinese coast guard vessel interfered with the arrest of a Chinese fishing vessel in Indonesian waters. Three months later, an Indonesian naval vessel opened fire on a Chinese fishing vessel that was allegedly engaged in illegal fishing near the Natuna Islands. 

The Indonesian government has responded to Chinese incursions by increasing its military presence on Natuna Besar, the main island in the group. On May 19, Indonesian president Joko Widodo attended a large military exercise on the island, the second time he has observed maneuvers there since October. His armed forces plan to add a naval facility and to extend a military runway to accommodate fighters. “We are not in a war situation, but the South China Sea is very close to us," said Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu late last year. "Our weaponry systems are good, but we need to add more, so that we don’t need to worry all the time."