Indonesia (13/1). Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited Natuna Islands Wednesday amid renewed tensions with China over the lucrative fishing waters that lie between Malaysia and Borneo.
Jokowi, as Widodo is popularly known, met hundreds of fishermen in the Natuna Islands and inspected two warships deployed in the area, the president’s office said in a statement. Jokowi asserted Indonesia’s rights to exploit the natural resources in the exclusive economic zone following the sighting of Chinese fishing vessels and coast guard ships in recent weeks, according to the statement.
“I am here to ensure the enforcement of our sovereign rights,” Jokowi said at the Lamba Strait naval base. Indonesia has the right to arrest or expel foreign vessels illegally exploiting natural resources in its exclusive economic zone, he said.
Indonesia has sent warships and 120 fishing vessels to patrol the area, Indonesian authorities said, while on Tuesday the Indonesian Air Force deployed four F-16 fighter jets to the islands.
While Indonesia claims the incursion of the fishing vessel was in violation of international laws, China said it’s operating legally. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a briefing on Wednesday both sides have been in communication using diplomatic channels.
“China and Indonesia have no territorial disputes. Our claims for maritime interests in certain waters in South China Sea overlap,” Geng said. “We are ready to properly handle the differences with Indonesia and uphold the peace and stability in the region as well as our two countries’ relations.”
The situation comes as both countries prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.
Jokowi has said the increased presence of Chinese ships in the disputed waters since December was a violation of international law. Speaking at a plenary cabinet session in Jakarta Monday, he said there would be “no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said her government will intensify maritime border talks with Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Palau and Timor Leste this year. Any territorial claim by a country must be based on international law, the minister said Wednesday.
Marsudi earlier this week urged China to comply with the United Nations 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.”
The latest conflict follows accusations by the U.S. and other coastal states in Southeast Asia that China was taking a more aggressive stance on its claims to more than 80% of the lucrative waters in the South China Sea. China has said it’s operating legally, and has called on the U.S. 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 when it issued a submission to the UN defining its continental shelf.
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 Jokowi 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.”