A ‘Little Bit of a Nut Case’ Who’s Taking On China

merlin_138763836_f2355f3e-a3e7-43c5-95f8-73e4fde632cb-superJumbo The New York Times

PANGANDARAN, Indonesia — Susi Pudjiastuti was scooping up lunch with one hand, using her thumb and two fingers to extricate bones from a chunk of fish. With the other hand, she simulated grinding a stiletto heel into the ground.

“This is what I can do if the Chinese try to play tricks on me,” said Ms. Pudjiastuti, the maritime affairs and fisheries minister of Indonesia. “I can smile very nicely and then I can use my high heel.”

“Very sharp,” she added, popping the piece of fish into her mouth.

Suffice it to say that Ms. Pudjiastuti is not a conventional Indonesian woman, much less a conventional cabinet minister. She chain smokes, although Indonesia’s health minister — one of eight women in the cabinet of President Joko Widodo — has warned her that a public figure should not be seen lighting up.

Ms. Pudjiastuti likes her coffee black and her alcohol only in the form of champagne. “My family thinks I am a little bit of a nut case,” she said.

Perhaps it takes a little bit of a nut case to challenge Beijing, going so far as to seize Chinese fishing boats poaching in Indonesian waters. She has created a lot of enemies along the way, at home as well as abroad, but she says her success can be measured by the improved health of Indonesia’s fishing grounds, and she is not about to back down.

With more than 13,000 islands, Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic nation, yet its maritime sovereignty had long been neglected. When she was appointed in 2014, Ms. Pudjiastuti, a seafood and aviation magnate who never finished high school, inherited a ministry that was in danger of being eliminated. But she has transformed her portfolio, declaring war on foreign fishing boats that had encroached on territorial waters and threatened some of the world’s most biodiverse seas.

Not all of the offenders have been from China. Boats from other Southeast Asian nations stray into Indonesia’s waters as well, costing the country at least $1 billion a year in lost resources, the United Nations has reported. Ms. Pudjiastuti has not relied on subtlety: Under her aegis, hundreds of impounded foreign vessels have been blown up.

But it is Ms. Pudjiastuti’s entanglements with the Chinese that have created the greatest uproar, while also making her an unlikely heroine for those calling for international defiance of Beijing’s muscular foreign policy.

Indonesia is not an official claimant to contested territory in the South China Sea, where Beijing is now landing bombers on disputed islets. But the nine-dash line that China uses on maps to demarcate the swath of the South China Sea it considers its own nevertheless extends into waters that lap up against Indonesian islands.

That is where the fish — and Ms. Pudjiastuti — come in.

“I’m not the military, I’m not the foreign minister,” she said. “The Chinese cannot really get angry at me because all I’m talking about is fish.”

Another smile, another bite of lunch, this time doused in an incendiary sauce Ms. Pudjiastuti made from part of a 65-pound haul of chiles she bought during a recent trip to eastern Indonesia.

In June 2016, an Indonesian warship towed away a Chinese fishing boat that had been caught near the Natunas, Indonesian islands located in the southernmost reaches of the South China Sea. An attempt earlier that year to bring in another Chinese boat had been foiled when the Chinese Coast Guard intervened, severing the towing line connecting the impounded vessel to an Indonesian patrol boat.

Both seizures took place in waters that are well within Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, as defined by international maritime law. But the Chinese Foreign Ministry protested and referred to the seas as China’s “traditional fishing grounds.”

Ms. Pudjiastuti was not impressed. “The Indonesians sailed all the way to Madagascar in ancient times,” she said. “Should we claim the entire Indian Ocean as our ‘traditional fishing grounds’?”

Since Ms. Pudjiastuti took over, most of the 10,000 foreign fishing boats that once poached in Indonesian waters have disappeared. Fishing stocks more than doubled from 2013 to 2017, according to government statistics.

But earlier this year, Indonesia’s vice president, Jusuf Kalla, said that enough was enough. Blowing up boats may have made Ms. Pudjiastuti the most beloved Indonesian cabinet minister, but the shock tactics were scaring off foreign investors. The Indonesian Chamber of Commerce echoed his complaint.

Even Indonesia’s 2.4 million-strong fishing community was up in arms, protesting Ms. Pudjiastuti’s efforts to halt popular but environmentally destructive practices like deep trawling and dynamite fishing.

The fisheries minister is unsympathetic. “When I started off in the seafood business, the fish were this big,” she said, widening her arms. “Then everything was small. The fish were gone, overfished, and the government didn’t care.”

In the decade before she took over, she says, the number of fishing households in Indonesia plunged by 45 percent.

Ms. Pudjiastuti, the ultimate self-made woman, is not about to go down without a fight. She was born in a fishing town on the southern coast of Java, Indonesia’s most densely populated island. She dropped out of high school. There was a first marriage and a child. There was a second marriage and a child. There was a third liaison and a child.

There was a night of drinking in which she got a phoenix tattooed on her right shin; the tattoo remains, even if the men who fathered her children do not. (John Kerry, when he was secretary of state, once jokingly promised to go to Indonesia if Ms. Pudjiastuti could arrange for him to get a similar tattoo.)

Ms. Pudjiastuti survived by driving a truck transporting frogs and bird’s nests. Then she moved into the seafood business — lobster to Japan, king prawns to Hong Kong — which spawned an aviation company that started off transporting crustaceans and expanded to carrying people.

Today, Susi Air boasts a fleet of 50 light aircraft. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Aceh in western Indonesia, killing around 170,000 people, Ms. Pudjiastuti dispatched planes filled with relief supplies.

These days, many Muslim women in Indonesia have abandoned the kebaya, the lacy, body-hugging blouse paired with a sarong that is Indonesia’s national dress for women, for looser-fitting garments. Not Ms. Pudjiastuti. Modeling during Indonesian Fashion Week earlier this year, she had her kebaya sewn so tightly that the stitches tore when she tried to sit down. The dress was hemmed up again but had to be undone when Ms. Pudjiastuti realized she needed to go to the bathroom. Then the tailor went to work a third time.

In the political realm, she remains a polarizing figure. Fahri Hamzah, the deputy speaker of Indonesia’s lower house of Parliament, suggested that Ms. Pudjiastuti’s tattoo made her “a thug.”

Supporters have raised Ms. Pudjiastuti’s name as a possible vice-presidential running mate to Mr. Widodo, who is up for re-election next year, despite a constitutional clause that limits the nation’s top two posts to candidates with a high-school degree. Ms. Pudjiastuti demurred when asked to comment on the vice-presidential rumors.

Whenever she can, she returns to the sea. Earlier this year, Ms. Pudjiastuti and one of her housekeepers, Nurmadia Heremba, traveled to Pangandaran, the mangrove-fronted town where she grew up. It was a holiday weekend, and she decompressed by steering a paddleboard out to sea.

The current was strong but after 90 minutes of hard rowing Ms. Pudjiastuti relaxed on her paddleboard with a smoke and a hot drink. The setting sun glowed crimson over the Indian Ocean. “Screw Jakarta,” Ms. Pudjiastuti said. “I am happy when I am out at sea.”

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