JAKARTA: While Indonesia is currently cooperating with China to secure COVID-19 vaccines for its citizens, this initiative will not influence its position on the South China Sea, said Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Tuesday (Oct 6).
Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea but it has on more than one occasion locked horns with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands in the southern part of the disputed waters. Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel was spotted in the Natuna waters.
When asked if the ongoing vaccine development would affect Indonesia's position on the disputed waters, she replied: “I can answer firmly, as firmly as possible. No. Those are two different things and when we work together, it is not cooperation that is unequal which only benefits one party, in this case Indonesia."
“But Chinese companies and China as a country, also enjoy the fruits or benefits of this cooperation. It’s a two-way benefit,” she told CNA in an exclusive interview.
On multiple occasions this year, Mdm Marsudi has reiterated that Indonesia is not a party to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and that the nine-dash line map which China uses as a basis for its claims in the waters lacks an international legal basis.
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Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is currently participating in a late-stage human trial of China’s Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccine candidate, one of the few candidates in the world to have entered phase 3 clinical trials.
It is also working together with another Chinese company, Sinopharm, to ensure that 260 million Indonesians can be vaccinated.
There have been recent signs of tensions in the South China Sea amid the COVID-19 situation.
Earlier this year, the US Navy said a guided-missile destroyer had sailed through waters near the Paracel islands, challenging China's claim to the area.
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Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel entered Indonesia's 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the northern Natuna islands and only left after radio challenges over jurisdiction.
Responding to the latest situation in the Natuna waters, Mdm Marsudi said that a vessel from another country can be in Indonesia’s EEZ if it is only passing by, but not if it is there to exercise territorial claim.
“If the purpose is to exercise its claim with the nine-dash line, of course, it cannot be justified. But after we communicated, through diplomatic channels, the vessel then moved,” said Indonesia's top diplomat.
She expects incidents involving foreign vessels' entry to Indonesia’s EEZ to continue.
"I believe this will not be the last time that it happens. Maybe it will happen again. And we will continue to communicate, we will continue to uphold our principles as we said earlier.”
Last December, Chinese fishing boats and guards also entered the Natuna waters and as a result, Mdm Marsudi summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta.
Indonesia then deployed warships and fighter jets to Natuna. After several days of stand-off and President Joko Widodo's visit to the area, the Chinese vessels left the area.
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MULTIPLE PARTNERS IN INDONESIA'S VACCINE DIPLOMACY
Elaborating on Indonesia's vaccine diplomacy, Mdm Marsudi said at the beginning of the pandemic, Indonesia had approached countries believed to have the capacity to fulfill its vaccine needs.
“So we talked to everybody, every country. There were those who responded quickly, and some responded a little later. To those who responded quickly, and to those who responded later, we got back to all.
“Well, it just so happens that the one who responded quickly was Sinovac. And the cooperation with Sinovac also involves cooperation for technology transfer, for manufacturing, and others,” she told CNA.
She said that after securing a partnership with Sinovac, Indonesia did not stop its search for partners.
Apart from working together with China, Indonesia is also developing its own vaccine while working together with the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. It is also in talks with two parties in the United Kingdom regarding vaccine cooperation, she said.
"Therefore, I can confirm that it is wrong if there is a perception that Indonesia only goes to China. No, we are trying to cooperate with all countries because apart from the many sources, there are many needs.
“And in Indonesian politics, it is clear that we are free and active and will not side with one bloc against the other. It's very clear. And this is manifested in all of our policies."