President Joko Widodo's trip to Indonesia's Natuna islands yesterday was meant to send a clear signal that Jakarta is serious about defending the country's sovereignty, said Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan.
The rare trip shows that while Indonesia does not expect any conflict with other countries, it remains firm in its position, Mr Luhut told The Straits Times at his private residence late on Wednesday. He accompanied Mr Joko on board a naval warship that sailed to the waters off the Natunas yesterday.
"We remain friendly but Indo- nesia's territory and sovereignty remain Indonesia's. This is non- negotiable," said Mr Luhut, who noted the recent breaches by Chinese fishing vessels in the Natunas.
Last Friday, the Indonesian navy fired warning shots at 12 Chinese fishing boats before detaining one vessel and its crew for fishing illegally in those waters. It was the third such incident in three months.
Beijing has in recent months claimed that Indonesia's exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, in the Natunas is part of China's "traditional fishing grounds".
Indonesian Rear-Admiral A. Taufiq R. on Tuesday described the presence of Chinese boats in the Natunas as a ruse by China to stake its claims in the South China Sea.
Mr Joko's trip comes just days after Vice-President Jusuf Kalla told Reuters in an interview that Indonesia would be more assertive in upholding its sovereignty over the waters around the Natunas.
Mr Joko and his entourage flew to Ranai before setting out to sea on a navy warship yesterday. Ranai is the capital of Natuna Regency on the Natuna archipelago in the South China Sea, some 550km north-east of Batam island and 530km from Singapore.
Besides Mr Luhut, other top officials accompanying Mr Joko included Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and armed forces chief Gatot Nurmantyo.
During a Cabinet meeting held on board the naval warship, Mr Joko and his team discussed the economic potential of the Natunas, which are considered among the nation's strategic zones, according to a presidential palace statement.
The President also asked for patrols in the Natunas to be stepped up, the statement added.
"I want the military and our coast guard to have improved radar technology as well as better patrol capability," Mr Joko told his ministers, according to the statement.
China is locked in territorial disputes with several other claimants in the South China Sea.
It claims almost all of the South China Sea while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
China's land reclamation works on disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea as well as the activities by its fishermen have escalated tensions in the region over the past year.