Indonesia's president visits Natuna island in waters disputed by China

Indonesia's president visits Natuna island in waters disputed by China

Joko Widodo visiting Natuna Islands
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE)

JAKARTA: President Joko Widodo visited an island in waters disputed by China on Wednesday (Jan 8) to assert Indonesia's sovereignty amid a standoff between Indonesian and Chinese vessels.

The confrontation began in mid-December when a Chinese coast guard vessel and fishing boats, entered waters in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone, off the coast of the northern Natuna islands, prompting Jakarta to summon Beijing's ambassador.

READ: Indonesia boosts patrols after Chinese boat 'trespasses' in its waters

Widodo told reporters on Natuna Besar island that the disputed waters belong solely to Indonesia.

"We have a district here, a regent, and a governor here," he said. "There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia."

Indonesia President Joko Widodo visiting Natuna Islands
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP/PRESIDENTIAL PALACE)

Widodo also met with fishermen on the island. Earlier this week, Indonesia deployed more ships and fighter jets to patrol the surrounding waters. Nursyawal Embun, the director of sea operations at the Maritime Security Agency, said as of Wednesday morning that two Chinese coast guard vessels remained, while 10 Indonesian ships were on patrol.

READ: Indonesia deploys fighter jets in stand-off with China

China has not claimed the Natuna islands themselves, but says it has nearby fishing rights within a self-proclaimed Nine-Dash Line that includes most of the South China Sea - a claim that is not recognized internationally.

In 2017, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, as part of a push back against China's maritime territorial ambitions.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo walking with officials
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo walking with officials during his visit to the Natuna islands. (Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Handout)

The dispute has soured Indonesia's generally friendly relationship with China, its biggest trading partner and a major investor in Southeast Asia's largest country.

In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime resources and investment, said that both Beijing and Jakarta will forge ahead with diplomatic discussions.

"What's the point of war? Nothing. Wars are the last step to a failing diplomatic process," Pandjaitan said.

READ: Indonesia deploys 4 additional warships to Natuna amid standoff with Chinese vessels

China claims most of the South China Sea, a global trade route with rich fishing grounds and energy reserves, based on what it says is its historic activity. But Southeast Asian countries, supported by the United States and much of the rest of the world, say such claims have no legal basis.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaking to fishermen during his visit to the Natuna islands
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaking to fishermen during his visit to the Natuna islands. (Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace/Handout) 
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On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing and Jakarta are in contact through diplomatic channels. "We wish to, with Indonesia, continue to appropriately deal with differences and uphold peace and stability in bilateral relations and the region," Shuang said.

The last peak in tensions between Indonesia and China over the South China Sea was in 2016. At the time, Widodo held a meeting with several of his ministers on board a naval ship in a show of support.

Source: Reuters/ga/ec

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