Jakarta – The president of Indonesia on Wednesday visited an island in disputed waters of the South China Sea amid a weeks-long standoff between Indonesian and Chinese vessels, an outgrowth of the ongoing territorial spat in which Jakarta and Beijing both claim sovereignty over the area.
Joko Widodo made the symbolic trip to Natuna Besar – the main island of the Middle Natuna Archipelago in the Riau Islands province – in a bid to assert Indonesia’s claims of ownership of the waters. There, he met with local fishermen and talked to reporters.
“I am here too to ensure law enforcement for our sovereign rights – our country’s sovereign rights – over the richness of our marine natural resources in the exclusive economic zone,” Widodo said. “Why are Bakamla (the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency) and the Navy here? To ensure the rule of law.”
The leader, who was re-elected to a second term in April of last year, added that Indonesia had a district, a regent and a governor in the area. “There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia.”
Meanwhile, Geng Shuang, the main spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said Wednesday that Beijing had repeatedly reiterated its sovereignty and jurisdiction over relevant waters in the South China Sea.
“I have to stress that China and Indonesia have no territorial sovereignty 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. Actually, we have been in communication through diplomatic channels.”
The face-off between the two Asian nations erupted in the second half of December when a Chinese coast guard ship that was escorting several fishing vessels entered waters that Jakarta says belong to its EEZ (though Beijing claims the waters as its own, along with most of the South China Sea).
In response to the incursion, Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador, issued a letter of protest and sent warships and fighter jets to strengthen its military presence in the area, which it re-named the North Natuna Sea in 2017. Beijing, in turn, deployed another coast guard boat.
On Tuesday, Indonesia sent four more warships as reinforcement. The Southeast Asian country currently has a naval presence of 10 military vessels around Natuna.
The dispute over the Natuna Islands dates back to 2016, when Indonesia decided to build military bases in the region following a series of conflicts with Chinese fishing boats.
Besides Indonesia, China is locked in sovereignty disputes over the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Beijing stakes claim on nearly the entire South China Sea region, an area through which $5 billion worth of commercial traffic passes annually, and which boasts large fishing zones and is reportedly rich in oil and gas reserves. EFE-EPA