Indonesia yesterday called on its neighbours to respect international law in the South China Sea for the sake of the region's security and economic well-being in a veiled dig at China amid simmering tensions over a fishing spat.
Vice-President Jusuf Kalla seized the opportunity to raise the issue of the disputed waters when he addressed a regional audience at the Boao For Asia (BFA) forum in Hainan, China. He said there was a risk territorial spats could lead to conflict.
He noted that while Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea dispute, trade worth US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) passes through the waters every year and that all parties would benefit from stability in the region.
"There's no economic success without stability, and no stability without peace," Mr Kalla said, adding that Indonesia is committed to peaceful resolution through political and diplomatic processes.
"We understand that resolving differences is never easy... It's a tough challenge but it's a challenge that can be overcome."
China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, with Beijing claiming almost all of the resource-rich waters.
Mr Kalla's comments came just days after tensions flared between China and Indonesia over the actions of a Chinese coast guard vessel in waters off Indonesia's Natuna islands. The Chinese patrol boat forcibly prevented the local maritime authorities from detaining a fishing boat allegedly poaching in Indonesia's territorial waters. Eight crew members have been detained by Indonesia.
Jakarta has accused Beijing of breaching its sovereign rights. In response, China says the fishermen were in "traditional Chinese fishing grounds", a claim which further escalated tensions.
Meanwhile, three Indonesian officials are keeping up the pressure on the issue. Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said Jakarta will evaluate its defence and security system in the Natunas, where the skirmish occurred.
Separately, Deputy Coordinating Minister of Maritime Affairs and Resources Arif Havas Oegroseno argued that China's claim that the clash took place in traditional fishing grounds of Chinese fishermen was "vague and ambiguous". "This is a new angle of Chinese argument in the region that not only Indonesia, but also other Southeast Asian countries need to follow closely," he told reporters.
And Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Indonesia is still waiting for China to respond to a diplomatic note seeking clarification on what Beijing meant by "traditional fishing grounds".
Mr Kalla's comments came after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in his keynote address at the opening plenary of the BFA forum, listed regional peace as an important ingredient for Asia's economic growth.
"We mustn't let ourselves be distracted by minor disputes. Dialogue and cooperation are key," Mr Li said, without elaborating.
Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, speaking after Mr Kalla, said "respect for international law and commitment to resolve differences by peaceful means" were key to maintaining stability in the region. He did not refer to the South China Sea.