Indonesian President Joko Widodo's trip to South China Sea islands a message to Beijing, says minister

Indonesia's president Joko Widodo holds a cabinet meeting on a warship off the Natuna Islands, in what has been called Indonesia's strongest message to China over assertion of the South China Sea.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo standing on the deck of the Indonesian Navy ship KRI Imam Bonjol after chairing a limited Cabinet meeting in the waters of Natuna Islands, Riau Islands province, Indonesia on June 23, 2016 in this photo provided by An
Indonesian President Joko Widodo standing on the deck of the Indonesian Navy ship KRI Imam Bonjol after chairing a limited Cabinet meeting in the waters of Natuna Islands, Riau Islands province, Indonesia on June 23, 2016 in this photo provided by Antara Foto.PHOTO: REUTERS
The Indonesian Navy vessel KRI Imam Bonjol (left) inspecting the Chinese-flagged fishing boat Han Tan Cou (right) in the waters near Natuna Islands, Riau Islands province, Indonesia, on June 17, 2016 in this Indonesian Navy handout photo provided by
The Indonesian Navy vessel KRI Imam Bonjol (left) inspecting the Chinese-flagged fishing boat Han Tan Cou (right) in the waters near Natuna Islands, Riau Islands province, Indonesia, on June 17, 2016 in this Indonesian Navy handout photo provided by Antara Foto.PHOTO: REUTERS
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Indonesian Navy vessel KRI Imam Bonjol when it was attempting to detain the fishing boat Han Tan Cou near Natuna Islands, on June 17, 2016.
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel passes near the Indonesian Navy vessel KRI Imam Bonjol when it was attempting to detain the fishing boat Han Tan Cou near Natuna Islands, on June 17, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS
Indonesian navy vessel KRI Todak next to a Chinese Coast Guard vessel while it was trying to detain the fishing boat Han Tan Cou near Natuna Islands, on June 17, 2016.
Indonesian navy vessel KRI Todak next to a Chinese Coast Guard vessel while it was trying to detain the fishing boat Han Tan Cou near Natuna Islands, on June 17, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Indonesian President Joko Widodo's trip on a navy warship to the waters off Indonesia's Natuna islands on Thursday (June 23) is to send a clear signal that Indonesia is serious about defending its sovereignty, Coordinating Political and Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan has said. 

The rare trip shows that while Indonesia does not expect confrontation with other countries, it remains firm in its position, Mr Luhut told The Straits Times at his private residence late on Wednesday, the night before setting out to sea with the President. 

"We remain friendly but Indonesia's territory and sovereignty remain Indonesia's. This is unnegotiable... There were breaches committed by Chinese (fishing vessels). We follow them up using the existing international laws. We do not budge," Mr Luhut said.

Mr Joko's trip comes just days after Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said in an interview with Reuters news agency that Indonesia would be more assertive in upholding its sovereignty over waters around the Natuna islands. 

 

Skirmishes broke out between Indonesia and China after Indonesian navy warships detained a China-flagged vessel and its crew last Friday for fishing illegally in the area. The Indonesian navy said warning shots had to be fired to stop 12 Chinese fishing boats, but it detained only the Yueyandong Yu 19038 and its crew of seven because it was the only boat with its fishing nets cast at the time.

Mr Joko and his entourage flew to Ranai on Thursday before setting out to sea on a navy warship to the waters off the Natuna islands. 

Ranai is the capital of Natuna Regency, which is located in the Natuna archipelago of the South China Sea, some 550km north-east of Batam island and 530km from Singapore.

Besides Mr Luhut, the other officials accompanying the President included Maritime and Fishery Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Armed Forces Chief General Gatot Nurmantyo,

Mr Joko will lead a Cabinet meeting on board the navy warship to discuss the economic potential of the Natuna islands, which are considered as the country's strategic zones, according to a presidential palace statement. 

Maritime, fishery and tourism development activities would fit the area and would bring prosperity to the people, said Mr Ari Dwipayana, who heads the presidential communications team. "The President wants to see for himself the condition of the Natuna islands to ensure the planned development would be more focused, clearer, and suitable," he added.

While the presidential palace did not reveal more details of the meeting's agenda, it will undoubtedly cover the issue of illegal fishing and the repeated claims by Beijing that Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, in the Natunas, is part of China’s “traditional fishing grounds”.

A provincial official told The Straits Times on Wednesday that Mr Joko plans to inspect the Chinese fishing boat held by the navy.

Jakarta had earlier criticised the presence of the Chinese fishing boats in the waters off Natuna Islands, with Western Fleet Commander Rear-Admiral A. Taufiq R calling it a ruse by Beijing to stake its claims in the South China Sea.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims. China's land reclamation works on disputed islands and reefs in the waterway as well as activities by its fishermen have escalated tensions in the region over the past year. 

Indonesia is not a formal claimant in the disputes but grew concerned after Beijing said in March that the waters around the Natunas are part of its "traditional fishing grounds".