No compromise on sovereignty over Natuna Islands despite China claims: Indonesia's Jokowi

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo sits in the cockpit of a Sukhoi fighter jet while attending a military exercise at Ranai military airbase in Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia on Oct 6, 2016.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo sits in the cockpit of a Sukhoi fighter jet while attending a military exercise at Ranai military airbase in Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia on Oct 6, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - President Joko Widodo said his country would not compromise on sovereignty, pushing back against Chinese claims that waters near Indonesian islands are also traditional Chinese fishing grounds.

The gas-rich Natuna Islands are "our territory," Mr Joko, better known as Jokowi, told the Sydney Morning Herald just a day before he postponed a planned visit to Australia after a rally in Jakarta turned violent. "You know, we have the Natuna regency there and there are 169,000 people out there and we want to build our fishery industry there."

Indonesia has sought to stay neutral in disputes between its neighbours and China over the nearby South China Sea, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. It is not a claimant in that area.

But incursions by Chinese fishing boats and its coast guard - plus public comments by senior Chinese officials about access to waters near the Natunas - risk drawing Indonesia into the broader maritime tensions.

"There is no compromise on sovereignty," Mr Joko told the newspaper.

In recent months, he has made several visits to the Natunas - including holding a Cabinet meeting on a warship there - and the military has beefed up its presence. That's even as new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sounds a more conciliatory tone over his country's dispute with China in the South China Sea.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in a visit to China this week signed a series of deals, including one to buy warships.

Asked if China was a destabilising factor for South-east Asia, Mr Joko said he had discussed the issue many times with President Xi Jinping. "Because we need better economic growth and without stability, I said to him, there is no economic growth. And he agreed with my statement."

China's claims to more than 80 per cent of the South China Sea were dented in July by an international tribunal that ruled it had no historic rights to the resources within the waters and that its actions there were aggravating tensions. China has rejected the ruling.

Mr Joko has said he wants to transform Indonesia, a string of more than 17,000 islands that forms the world's largest archipelago, into a maritime power and has in the past laid out a plan to develop the fishing industry, improve port infrastructure and bolster sea defences.

Mr Joko was scheduled to hold talks with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before addressing Australia's Parliament on Monday (Nov 7), with both leaders keen to strike a balance between China - a major trading partner for both - and the US, which has for decades been the dominant military presence in Asia.

Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Saturday (Nov 5) that "it is with the deepest regret" that President Joko's scheduled November 6-8 visit to Australia "has now been postponed".

"Current development has required the President to stay in Indonesia," the statement said.

Police on Friday (Nov 4) fired tear-gas at Islamic protesters demanding Jakarta's Christian governor be jailed for his comments about the Quran. About 200 people continued demonstrating into the evening and refused to leave an area near the presidential palace, with local media broadcasting running battles with police who also used water cannons to bring the situation under control.

At least 70,000 people earlier held a largely-peaceful rally, National Police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar said, with about 20,000 riot police and military personnel deployed to the capital.

The president was prevented from returning to the palace until the unrest ended.