2020 ended with a not so good news for Indonesian-Chinese relations, as it emerged earlier this week that a fisherman found a Chinese Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) maneuvering illegally in Indonesian waters off the coast of South Sulawesi in late December.
Diverse responses immediately came from many Indonesian stakeholders – the Indonesian navy, analysts, and parliament – demanding a strong response to China. Despite the absence of an international treaty regarding the use of UUV, how Indonesia responds to the incident matters greatly in the context of international law and order.
This is not the first time that a foreign UUV has been found to be operating in Indonesian waters, with at least three UUV reported in the last few years, with the potential for many more that have not been found. This time Indonesian fisherman found a suspected UUV owned and operated by the China Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences – a research institute that focuses on robotics, intelligent manufacturing, and optoelectronic information technology.
Initially, UUV were created for military use, however scientific communities are also developing such technologies for scientific research purposes. Even the UN Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea Office of Legal Affairs in 2020 has recognised UUV as a tool for marine scientific research.
But even though UUVs are regarded as a legal tool for marine scientific research, conducting such research in a maritime jurisdiction of sovereign coastal states should be based on consent or permits issued by the coastal states, as regulated under the law of the sea convention. And without such a permit from coastal states, any marine scientific research conducted in a coastal state maritime jurisdiction is illegal and subject to national law enforcement of coastal states.
UUV are often regarded as among the most significant technological developments in the 21st century. Their capability to maneuver without being operated by a human has made it a useful tool for espionage, research, and intelligence gathering, not only in international waters but also in foreign waters. This is the reason why many major developed countries such as the US, China, UK have devoted much time and resources to developing such technology.
However, there hasn’t been any firm international regulation regarding the use of UUV. In other words, there hasn’t been any international treaty regulating the use of UUV even in the existing UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea. The existing Law of the Sea treaty has also not yet defined and regulated the status of UUV – with its unmanned nature rendering it unsuitable for the definition of a vessel under current treaties – making it ambiguous what Indonesia’s response should be based upon.
China holds a strong influence in Southeast Asia, a firm reaction will send a message that Indonesia will strongly respond to any espionage and violations in our maritime zone
But while there is not yet an international treaty regulating the use of UUV in international law, Indonesia should still send a strong message to the Chinese government regarding the incident for at least two reasons.
First, to emphasise that Indonesia is taking such a violation seriously. It is not the first time that we’ve had a maritime incident with China, and since China holds a strong influence in Southeast Asia, a firm reaction will send a message that Indonesia will strongly respond to any espionage and violations in our maritime zone.
Secondly, to send a message to other states that have a UUV and operate them around the region. If Indonesia protests strongly and responds to the incident, other states will know that Indonesia will take such violations seriously, causing them to think twice before operating their UUV illegally in Indonesian waters.
With geopolitical tension in the region growing more tense through the US and China rivalry, it is expected there will be more espionage and use of UUV in the region going forward. Therefore, the Indonesian navy and coast guard should formulate a standard operational procedure for dealing with a UUV in Indonesian waters. This is necessary because any law enforcement measures used with a foreign UUV should be based on proportionate national regulation to avoid any excessive force that might escalate the situation.
This issue needs to be tackled firmly and correctly to assure Indonesian national security and sovereignty.
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a Lecturer in International Law at the University of Indonesia and Young Leader at the Honolulu based Pacific Forum Foreign Policy Research Institute. He holds master’s in international law from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University