Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday visited the Natuna Islands amid renewed tensions with China over the lucrative fishing waters that lie between Malaysia and Borneo.
Widodo was scheduled to meet hundreds of fishermen in the area following the sighting of Chinese fishing vessels and coast guard ships near the Natuna Islands in the past few weeks, a statement on the Cabinet Secretariat Web site said.
Indonesia has sent warships and 120 fishing vessels to patrol the area, Indonesian authorities said.
On Tuesday, the Indonesian Air Force deployed four F-16 jets to the islands, Detik news site reported.
Widodo said that the increased presence of Chinese ships in the disputed waters since last month was in contravention of international law.
China said it is operating legally.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) told a regular briefing on Tuesday that both sides have been in communication using diplomatic channels.
“Between us, friendship and cooperation is the mainstream while difference merely a branch,” Geng said. “Both China and Indonesia shoulder the important task of safeguarding regional peace and stability.”
The situation comes as both countries prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.
At a plenary Cabinet session in Jakarta on Monday, Widodo said there would be “no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty.”
Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi said that the government would intensify maritime border talks with Malaysia, Palau, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and Vietnam this year.
Any territorial claim by a country must be based on international law, she said yesterday.
Marsudi earlier this week urged China to comply with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, saying: “Indonesia will never recognize nine-dash lines or unilateral claims made by China that do not have legal reasons recognized by international law.”
This latest conflict comes after accusations by the US and other coastal states in Southeast Asia that China is taking a more aggressive stance on its claims to more than 80 percent of the lucrative waters in the South China Sea.
China has said it is operating legally, and has called on the US to stop interfering in the region.
There were several reported incidents involving Chinese coast guard vessels entering waters controlled by other claimants last year, including one that resulted in a nearly four-month-long standoff with Vietnam.
Malaysia also drew an objection from Beijing on Dec. 12 last year when it issued a submission to the UN defining its continental shelf.
The incident began more than two weeks ago when Chinese coast guard vessels escorting dozens of fishing vessels were spotted in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, the Jakarta Post reported, triggering the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to send a diplomatic protest to Beijing on Dec 30.
China responded the next day, with Geng saying that the country has sovereignty over the nearby Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and their waters in the northeast, which had for years been traditional Chinese fishing grounds.
Last year, the Indonesian government announced plans to develop the lucrative fishing grounds near Natuna in part to assert its sovereign authority there. It also pledged to build new cold-storage facilities to turn the area into a functional fishing hub by the year’s end.
This is not the first time the two sides have faced conflict near Natuna.
Indonesia has for years fended off fisherman from coastal Asian countries caught poaching in its waters — confiscating and destroying hundreds of boats, some of which were Chinese.
Indonesia’s moves are reminiscent of 2016, when Widodo took similar actions — including issuing a statement on the country’s sovereignty, sending F-16s to the area and making personal visit there — following several incursions by Chinese fishing boats and its coast guard.
Jakarta has nevertheless sought to remain neutral in the wider dispute.
“This is how it has responded since the 2016 incursions. So if there was posturing, it was back then,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Southeast Asian Political Change and Foreign Policy program. “Indonesian policy has been remarkably consistent on this issue.”
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