First published in The Wall Street Journal
By Trefor Moss , (c) 2016, Dow Jones & Company, Inc (c) 2016

Indonesia destroyed 23 foreign fishing boats on Tuesday, as worsening relations over the disputed South China Sea drive countries to take tougher action to defend their maritime sovereignty.

Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said her agency sank 10 Malaysian and 13 Vietnamese boats that were caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

She vowed to mete out the same punishment to any vessel found poaching, no matter its origin. “If there is an illegal fishing boat from America, we will also sink it,” Ms. Pudjiastuti said.

The move came two weeks after Jakarta criticized Beijing for alleged poaching by a Chinese fishing boat.

China’s increasingly forceful efforts to press its claims to most of the South China Sea have made Southeast Asian countries that depend on the area’s rich resources more protective of their domains. Countries in the region are stepping up efforts to punish maritime incursions while investing in added muscle for their navies and coast guards.

“It’s become increasingly clear that Chinese incursion into neighboring countries’ waters, ostensibly for exploration of fisheries resources, is the new normal,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a security expert at De La Salle University in Manila. “And clearly Malaysia, Indonesia and other historical fence-sitters have come to share the threat perceptions of more vocal countries like the Philippines and Vietnam.”

On Monday, the Philippines kicked off annual military exercises with the U.S., while a Japanese naval flotilla, including a submarine, arrived in Subic Bay for separate drills with the Philippine navy.

Other Southeast Asian countries are raising their own threat assessments as China intensifies its activities in contested waters, according to security analysts.

China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are among the world’s top 15 fish and seafood exporters, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They all deploy vast fishing fleets in the South China Sea, which supplies roughly a 10th of the total global catch.

But after years of overfishing, these fishing fleets increasingly stray across maritime boundaries in search of fish, causing friction between governments.

A country’s exclusive economic zone, over which it has resource rights, normally extends 200 miles from its coastline.

“Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have prevented any organized fisheries management, so it’s a free-for-all,” said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

Since President Joko Widodo assumed office in 2014, Indonesia has shown the most determined crackdown; it has sunk 174 foreign boats to date. The policy has proved popular at home.

On Tuesday, under the full gaze of the media, Ms. Pudjiastuti ordered officials at seven locations around the vast archipelago country to blow up captured fishing boats, which could be seen exploding via video link following a dramatic countdown.

The Malaysian and Vietnamese governments didn’t respond to questions about the Indonesian action.

Ms. Pudjiastuti said Indonesian boats were catching more fish as a result of Jakarta’s intervention.

Other countries are following suit. On Saturday, Thailand seized five Vietnamese fishing boats accused of poaching in Thai waters in the Gulf of Thailand, which adjoins the South China Sea, and detained 48 crew. Vietnam last Thursday captured a Chinese support ship carrying fuel for fishing vessels assumed to be operating near the Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea.

Even in areas that seemingly fall outside China’s vaguely defined “nine-dash line,” which Beijing uses to demarcate its South China Sea claims, the Chinese government has asserted the right of Chinese fishing boats to operate in “traditional fishing grounds.”

Last month, Beijing said a Chinese fishing boat seized by Indonesian authorities but then forcibly freed by a Chinese Coast Guard ship had been working in just such an area near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, in the southwest corner of the South China Sea.

Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador to complain, and Ms. Pudjiastuti has urged China to surrender the vessel. Jakarta has impounded 10 more Chinese boats, the ministry added, which will be destroyed unless their owners win an appeal to have them returned.

Officially, there is no territorial dispute between China and Indonesia in the South China Sea—as China has with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam—but Jakarta is increasingly concerned about the presence of Chinese vessels near the Natunas. It has already announced plans to set up a military base there as a protective measure.

On Thursday, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador in Kuala Lumpur to protest the presence of some 100 Chinese fishing boats at Luconia Shoals, a disputed area close to Malaysia’s coast.

Until now, the Malaysian government rarely rebuked China in public for fear of upsetting their relationship at a time when Beijing has emerged as a major investor in the Malaysian economy.

Kuala Lumpur has “consistently played down China’s activities in our territories,” saidWan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank. “This could be to protect our commercial interest, or it could also be to avoid the public…realizing how useless our defenses are.”

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