Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday officiated at the opening of a commercial airport terminal in Ranai, the capital city of the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, as the country asserts its sovereignty over its outer islands amid territorial disputes in the waterway.
The upgraded Ranai Airport, which boasts a larger passenger terminal and a wider runway after its expansion, is part of Indonesia's plan to boost connectivity over its vast maritime territories spanning 17,000 islands, said Mr Joko.
"It is time we looked at the sea, it is time we looked at the sky, as a link to unify Indonesia, not to separate it," he said. "Without connectivity, we will not win the competition and will be left behind. Competition among countries is becoming increasingly fierce."
He hopes the airport, with its new 3,865-sq m terminal and 45m-wide runway, can act as an "air bridge" connecting the Natunas to other provinces, districts and cities. "We hope with this air bridge, the movement of people and goods and the mobility of people and goods will be much faster," he said.
Mr Joko's visit yesterday - his second to the area - had led to speculation over whether it was a show of force by Indonesia to warn China to respect its sovereignty.
But in a statement yesterday, Indonesian military (TNI) chief Gatot Nurmantyo gave the assurance that the exercise on Natuna and other islands "was not intended specifically to respond to the tensions with the Chinese government related to the conflict in the South China Sea".
"The reinforcement is done in order to maintain the integrity of Indonesia as a whole," the statement said.
Mr Joko's trip was also to observe thousands of troops, including airborne paratroopers and squadrons of F-16 and Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets, being put through their paces as part of the finale of a major unilateral military exercise.
He had inspected military aircraft as well as other weaponry displayed as part of the exercise held in Indonesian territory, which lies on the edge of waters that are the subject of overlapping claims by four Asean countries and China as well as Taiwan.
He had previously visited the area on June 23 to inspect naval patrols on the border of the South China Sea.
Jakarta has consistently maintained that it is not a party to the territorial disputes but remains concerned about Beijing's claim over parts of its exclusive economic zone in the waters off the Natuna Islands.
General Gatot told reporters yesterday that "the President has a policy that all the outer islands that are strategic will be strengthened, be it air, maritime or land", Reuters reported. "Our country needs to have an umbrella. From corner to corner, we have to safeguard it," he was quoted as saying.
Earlier on Wednesday, he said Indonesia will not conduct any new joint military exercises in the South China Sea, reinforcing the country's neutrality in territorial disputes.
Other Indonesian officials had maintained that the most recent exercise was routine.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir yesterday said the exercise was "normal" and not the first one that the military had organised. "There are no other purposes other than usual practice."
Yesterday, Mr Joko was accompanied by First Lady Iriana, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Wiranto, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung.