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Why Indonesia fired on Chinese fishing boats in South China Sea

Tensions in the South China Sea are rising as Indonesia has seized a Chinese fishing boat it says was fishing illegally around the Natuna Islands, the third such incident between the two countries in recent months. 

Chinese navy vessels take part in a drill in the waters off Zhoushan in east China's Zhejiang province in this 2012 file photo. China and Indonesia are at odds over the rights to waters surrounding Indonesian islands.

Indonesia confirmed Monday that it had seized a boat of Chinese fishermen in disputed waters in a corner of the South China Sea – the third such incident in recent months.

The altercation occurred on Friday, as Indonesia says its warships had fired warning shots at several boats that were fishing illegally, Reuters reported. A spokesman for Indonesia's Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Atmadji Sumarkidjo, told the The New York Times that one boat was confiscated and its seven-member crew is being detained. 

Tensions have been rising as an international court is expected to rule in the upcoming weeks on a case filed by the Philippines over China's South China Sea claims. China has territorial disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and members of that group have spoken out against China's increased military and naval presence in the region, the Times reports.

Although Indonesia is not a claimant in the disputes over the South China Sea, China's territorial claims overlap with part of Indonesia's 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands, north of Borneo.

"Like the previous incidents, the Chinese ships were fishing in the area that we claim is part of our E.E.Z. [Exclusive Economic Zone]," Mr. Atmadji told the Times. "The navy pursued them, and they tried to run away and did not obey our instructions to stop."

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry, told Reuters that China condemned Indonesia's "indiscriminate use of force".  

"We urge the Indonesian side to refrain from any action that complicates or magnifies the dispute, or impacts the peace and stability of the region," Ms. Hua said.

China does not dispute Indonesia's control of the Natuna islands, but Chinese ships claim the waters around the islands are "traditional Chinese fishing grounds" that they have a right to, Reuters reports. 

The incident is the third of its kind between China and Indonesia in recent months. A Chinese Coast Guard ship forcibly recovered a Chinese fishing boat that had been confiscated by Indonesia near the Natuna islands in March after Indonesia detained the boat's eight crew members for fishing illegally. The Indonesian Navy fired warning shots at a Chinese fishing boat and detained its eight-person crew in May near the islands, under the same charge of fishing illegally.    

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told Reuters that Indonesia would continue to assert its sovereignty over the waters surrounding the Natuna islands and would send a message to Beijing demanding that it respect Indonesia's sovereignty over the area. 

Although The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected make a ruling in upcoming weeks regarding the territorial disputes in the sea, China has been clear in saying they will ignore the court's ruling. Some $5 trillion is shipped through the area every year, and China has been tightening its grip on the sea in recent months, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. The United States is also a participant in the conflict, as China has intercepted American planes over both the South China Sea and East China Sea in the past two months, as the Monitor reported.  

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Monitor in March that China's goal is to achieve administrative dominance of the sea.

"The ultimate Chinese goal in the next few years is less about pushing the US military out of the area (though that is the long-term naval strategy)," Mr. Poling said, "but rather about achieving administrative domination of the seas, so other Southeast Asian nations can do little without seeking Chinese permission."

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