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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


Indonesia’s Policy of Sinking
Illegal Unreported Unregulated
Fishing Boats – 1
Carlyle A. Thayer
May 17, 2019

We request your assessment of the following issues:


Q1. Indonesia just sunk 51 boats, thirty of which came from Vietnam. It is the latest
development of Indonesia's policy to deal with illegal boats in its Exclusive Economic
Zone (EEZ). What will be the impact, domestically and diplomatically?
ANSWER: Indonesia has been burning and sinking foreign fishing boats in its EEZ since
October 2014. The total number is 488 boats of all nationalities. This figure is prior to
the sinking of 51 additional fishing boats in May after a suspension of several months.
This policy is a popular one in Jakarta because of the economic losses suffered by
Indonesia and its fishing community through Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU)
fishing. The latest round of sinkings came after President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) was
re-elected.
All regional governments concerned want to control and eliminate IUU fishing but at
the same time they also want to protect the rights of their fishermen and see they are
treated humanely.
ASEAN has in place a Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Cooperation on Fisheries,
2016-2020. This Strategic Plan calls for ASEAN members and the international
community to cooperate in order to combat IUU fishing.
An international Agreement on Port State Measures came into force in June 2016.
Sixty states have signed this agreement. It is a binding agreement that would prevent
vessels identified as IUU fishing boats from using ports and landing their illegal fish
catch in states that are signatories. Only five ASEAN members are parties to this
agreement – Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The United
States and Japan have also signed this agreement but not China, Brunei, Cambodia,
Malaysia, and Singapore.
Indonesia has been proactive in trying to mobilize the international community to
combat IUU fishing. In October 2018, for example, Indonesia hosted the Our Ocean
international conference. China did not attend.
Indonesia has burned boats from a number of countries. For example of the 51 boats
burned this month 38 boats came from Vietnam, 6 from Malaysia, 2 from China, one
from the Philippines and 4 foreign-owned boats flying the Indonesian flag. Earlier boat
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burnings have included vessels from Thailand. Both China and Vietnam have raised
this issue through diplomatic channels.
The norms of the ASEAN Way preclude binding and enforceable mechanisms. In other
words, Indonesia’s policy of burning IUU fishing boats in a bilateral matter between
the states directly concerned. At present Indonesia’s policy has impacted most heavily
on Vietnam.
Q2. It has been said that because the sinking of foreign boats is popular, building up
the reputation of President Widodo and his Minister for Maritime Affairs and
Fisheries, it would be difficult for Widodo to back off. Do you think Widodo will
promote domestic populism at the expense of relations with neighbouring countries?
ANSWER: Recent research has shown that Indonesia’s policy is having an effect on
reducing the presence of foreign IUU fishing boats in Indonesia’s EEZ. Indonesia has
been circumspect in dealing with Chinese IUU fishing boats because of the pressure
China can bring to bear; the evidence indicates that Chinese IUU fishing has dropped
off. A report to the 10th international conference on the East Sea (South China Sea)
hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Da Nang in late 2018 identified
Vietnam as the main transgressor in Indonesian waters.
While domestic nationalism plays a role in the policies of the Jokowi government,
economic concerns are foremost. Indonesia does not face a choice between domestic
nationalism and relations with Vietnam. Indonesia and Vietnam are both strategic
partners and signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. They have a
legal obligation to demarcate their respective maritime zones. In the interim they are
enjoined to adopt measures of a practical nature to manage their dispute.
While bilateral negotiations on the sea boundary are underway, these talks should be
accelerated as a matter of priority. The two sides should reaffirm that they will treat
IUU fishing boats and their crews humanely, and expeditiously return boats and their
crews that have been detained. Indonesia should cease its policy of burning and
sinking IUU boats. Vietnam should exercise self-restraint and prevent further ramming
incidents between its Coast Guard vessels and Indonesian navy ships.
Q3. Indonesia is not the only country whose EEZ had been violated by foreign boats,
so what should be done between the countries involved?
ANSWER: The manner in which Malaysia has responded to IUU fishing should be
followed. For example, since 2006 Malaysia has detained 748 Vietnamese fishing
vessels and 7,203 Vietnamese crew but has not sunk any of the vessels.
Vietnam too has a role to play in preventing its fishing boats from IUU fishing in the
waters of other ASEAN states. Vietnam has strategic partnership agreements with
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand and the consultation mechanisms in
these agreements should be used to manage IUU fishing.
Q4. How would it affect ASEAN's and its ability to confront China's expansionism, given
that ASEAN has not been united?
ANSWER: ASEAN has in place the Strategic Plan of Action on ASEAN Cooperation on
Fisheries, 2016-2020. IUU fishing is not a matter between China and individual ASEAN
states but a bilateral matter between ASEAN members whose fishermen engage in
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IUU fishing. For example, a recent study by academics at the University of California
at Santa Barbara noted that China’s fishing fleet was the largest distant fishing fleet in
the world. Chinese boats engaged in IUU fishing accounted for between 2,000 and
5,000 hours of fishing per month in Indonesian waters. This was ten times greater than
the second largest IUU fishing country, Thailand. An analysis of satellite imagery and
other sources revealed that Chinese illegal fishing hours had dropped to near nil. Part
of this reduction was attributed to superior Chinese technology on its fishing fleet that
enabled boats to escape.
In sum, IUU fishing is not a problem of China versus ASEAN but a regional problem in
which fishing boats from China and some ASEAN member states are engaged in IUU
fishing. In other words, this is a non-traditional security threat posed by non-state
actors. This prompted Indonesia to include illegal fishing as one of the areas to be
addressed cooperatively in the ASEAN- China. Single Draft South China Sea Code of
Conduct Negotiating Text adopted in August 2018.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Indonesia’s Policy of Sinking Illegal Unreported


Unregulated Fishing Boats - 1,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 17, 2019.
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