Indonesia urges peace patrols in South China Sea

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Countries with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea - including China - should carry out joint peace patrols there to reduce the risk of conflict, Indonesia's defence minister said.

Senior US military officials have recently urged South-east Asian countries to jointly patrol the waters as it seeks to reassure its allies that it will back them against China's assertions to about four-fifths of the sea. But they haven't mentioned China as a potential participant.

The proposed patrols would send a message that no single country should "build up strength or threaten anyone" in the waters, Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said in an interview on Saturday on the sidelines of a regional meeting of defence ministers and military chiefs in Singapore.

Parts of the waters are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia. Over the last 18 months, China has accelerated reclamation work on reefs, raising alarms regionally and in the US, which in turn has stepped up its aerial and sea patrols of the area.

Indonesia has long said it is a neutral party in the disputes, even as waters off its Natuna archipelago - an area rich in natural gas - appear to overlap slightly with China's claims.

Asked whether he thought China had designs on the Natuna islands, Ryacudu said "not yet" and added China had no right over them. "We have history there," he said.

Joint patrols in the waters would be hard to implement, even assuming countries agree to the idea. The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have been working toward a "code of conduct" for the waters for more than a decade without major progress.

Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said joint patrols with China were "not an impossibility."

"China has more to lose if the region is unstable," he told reporters on the sidelines of the Singapore forum. Patrols by more than one country have been very effective in other areas, like curbing piracy in the Malacca Strait, he said.

In his speech earlier to the Shangri-La dialogue, Hishammuddin urged South-east Asian nations to reach a code of conduct for the disputed waters soon.

"If we're not careful it could certainly escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time," he said.

Ryacudu, a former army chief of staff, also said Indonesia's military should play a greater role in tackling Islamist extremists, particularly the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Between 200 and 500 Indonesians are believed to have joined the group in the Middle East, giving them new skills they could use if they return. Supporters at home might heed ISIS calls for violence in its name.

Ryacudu said the military's extensive network of command posts right down to the village level should be the "eyes and ears" of the state in tracking down suspects.

"If events are disturbing the people, then it's a police issue," he said. "But if they disturb the state, then the military should be involved."

The remarks appear to indicate a growing assertiveness by the military under President Joko Widodo, who is known as Jokowi. The military had a large political and internal security role under former dictator Suharto, but withdrew after his regime collapsed amid pro-democracy protests in 1998.

The police force has led the campaign against extremism for the past 15 years, winning praise internationally for its efforts.