The spat between Indonesia and China over the South-east Asian nation's actions to intercept a Chinese fishing vessel poaching in its exclusive economic zone, and Malaysia's startling announcement yesterday that it was monitoring the intrusion of 100 Chinese fishing boats in its waters guarded by two Chinese coast guard ships, have again raised worry over the behaviour of Asia's dominant power.
On March 19, when the Indonesian vessel detained the Chinese trawler and was towing it towards land, a Chinese coast guard ship appeared and sought to reclaim the boat. However, Indonesia succeeded in bringing in the eight poachers and has vowed to prosecute them.
For the moment, Indonesia, after going public with the spat, is reining in its reaction even as it is incensed by China saying its boat was operating in "traditional fishing grounds". Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has emphasised the good ties between her country and China. She also has clarified, after initial rumblings of taking China to international tribunals, that "Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea dispute, so we are asking for a clarification about the incident". Those words, however, do not preclude future steps that the archipelagic nation may take to defend its interests. Malaysia, on the other hand, has hinted at possible legal action.
China should ponder what sort of relationship it seeks with South-east Asia. Having upset an arc of Asean states in its periphery - Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia - with its island-building on territory it controversially occupies, it is now at risk of roiling ties with Asean's largest nation. Beijing's clarification last November that it had no claim on Indonesia's Natuna Islands had appeared to soothe nerves in Jakarta, but last weekend's actions off the Natunas, and the presence of its boats in Malaysia's economic zone, seem to suggest that it does not recognise exclusive economic zones where they overlap with China's claimed nine-dash line. Asean states have also noted that Chinese trawlers have been caught as far afield as in Argentinian waters, raising tensions there too.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo's maritime fulcrum vision is centred on the upholding of national sovereignty. Wiping out the poaching of ocean stock is a core domestic element of that policy, hence the high-profile sinking of poaching vessels, which raised some eyebrows around the region. China's actions embarrass a leader who has been studiously neutral on the South China Sea dispute and compel him to adopt a more forceful line, or risk looking weak.
Mr Joko would doubtless be aware that in Malaysia, the Defence Minister spoke recently of the need to start "pushing back" at China. Chinese President Xi Jinping should know he is not the only leader who has to counter nationalist forces at home. These same groups would be the first to lament if the hope of a rising Asian century is blown out of the water.