Indonesia's President Jokowi says China has no legal claim to South China Sea: Yomiuri

TOKYO (Reuters) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo says China's claims to the majority of the South China Sea have "no legal foundation in international law", Japan's Yomiuri newspaper reported.

The comments, in an interview published on Sunday ahead of visits to Japan and China this week, were the first time Mr Joko, who took office in October, has taken a position on the South China Sea dispute.

Indonesia, the largest country in South-east Asia, has been a self-appointed broker in the myriad territorial disputes between its neighbours and China over the South China Sea. "We need peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. It is important to have political and security stability to build up our economic growth," Mr Joko was quoted as saying in an English version of the interview published on Monday. "So we support the Code of Conduct (of the South China Sea) and also dialogue between China and Japan, China and Asean."

But in a Japanese version of the interview published on Sunday, Mr Joko rejected one of Beijing’s main claims to the South China Sea. “The ‘nine-dashed line’ that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law,” he said.The President was not speaking on China’s overall claim on the South China Sea, but only its nine-dash dotted line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of South-east Asia, his foreign policy adviser Rizal Sukma told Reuters on Monday. “In 2009, Indonesia sent its official stance on the issue to the UN commission on the delimitation of the continental shelf, stating that the nine-dotted line has no basis in international law,” said Mr Sukma. “So, nothing changes.”

Mr Joko also confirmed that he and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom he meets later on Monday, would sign a defence cooperation agreement that would cover "how to work with" Japan's military, and "search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance, and cyber defence", the Yomiuri reported.

China’s Foreign Ministry appeared to downplay the remarks, repeating its standard line about Chinese sovereignty and that the dispute needs sorting out between the countries directly involved. “The core of the South China Sea dispute is because of some countries’ illegal occupation of several islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters has caused overlapping maritime claims,” spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.

Japan has already bolstered partnerships with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries most at odds with China over territorial rows in the South China Sea. Japan itself is embroiled in a bitter dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, further to the north.

Mr Joko also said he hoped to discuss maritime cooperation with Japan's coast guard "because Japan has good experience to manage its waters", the newspaper reported.

Mr Joko will visit China immediately after his stop in Japan. Indonesia and China have a more developed military relationship and Jakarta has bought Chinese-made missiles and other military hardware.