Indonesia eyes regular navy exercises with US in South China Sea

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia wants to hold regular military exercises with the United States near the sparsely populated Natuna archipelago, an area of the South China Sea near China's claims, a navy spokesman said on Monday.

Although Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea, the military has accused China of including parts of Natuna within its so called "Nine-Dash Line", the vague boundary used on Chinese maps to lay claim to about 90 per cent of the sea.

The United States, which raised concerns on Friday about China's rapid reclamation of reefs in the area, held a joint military exercise over the weekend with Indonesia in Batam, about 480 kms from Natuna. "It was the second joint exercise we have conducted with the United States in that area and we are planning another one next year. We want to make it routine in that area," said Indonesia Navy spokesman Manahan Simorangkir.

The military exercise included the use of surveillance and patrol aircraft, such as the P-3 Orion, which can detect surface vessels and submarines.

The exercise could not be held in Natuna because of the lack of facilities to accommodate all of the aircraft, he said.

Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told Reuters last week that in May he would visit Natuna, a scattering of 157 mostly uninhabited islands off the northwest coast of Borneo, to finalise plans on upgrading its small military base. "There has always been an airport in Natuna but it does not have a lot of armed forces, only a few marines," the minister said. "We will add forces there - possibly air, navy and land forces."

Indonesian officials said the joint military exercises with the United States and planned military build-up in Natuna were not in response to any specific threat. "It is important to remember Indonesia is not involved in any disputes in the South China Sea," Mr Simorangkir said. "We don't want an incident in the South China Sea and are committed to the diplomatic approach we have always taken."

President Joko Widodo last month said that China's main claims to the majority of the disputed sea had no legal basis in international law, but Jakarta wanted to remain an "honest broker" in one of Asia's most thorny territorial disputes.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims to the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.