Jokowi backs peaceful end to sea spats

Indonesia also plans to step up development of its border areas

Indonesian President Joko Widodo onboard the Imam Bonjol warship in Indonesia's Natuna Islands in the South China Sea on June 23.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo onboard the Imam Bonjol warship in Indonesia's Natuna Islands in the South China Sea on June 23.PHOTO: AFP

President Joko Widodo has pledged that Indonesia will continue to play an active role in efforts to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where several South-east Asian countries have overlapping claims with China.

"Indonesia must be actively involved in promoting the resolution of South China Sea disputes through negotiations and peaceful means," Mr Joko said yesterday in his annual speech before Parliament, ahead of Indonesia's Independence Day today.

"We continue to encourage peaceful resolution of international conflicts," Mr Joko said, referring to last month's arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea, which invalidated China's historic claims to nearly all of the sea based on its "nine-dash line".

The tribunal at The Hague said claims of maritime entitlements must instead be defined under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The President, who goes by the moniker Jokowi, also said in his speech that Indonesia will put priority on developing frontier areas, including the gas-rich Natuna Islands.

"We will develop border areas such as Entikong, Natuna and Atambua to show the world that Indonesia is a great nation that takes care of every square metre of its territory," Mr Joko said. Entikong and Atambua are remote Indonesian territories bordering Malaysia and East Timor respectively.

Former coordinating minister for maritime affairs Rizal Ramli said last month that Indonesia has big plans for the Natuna Islands, primarily in the fishery sector where it aims to raise its catchment capacity from 9.3 per cent to about 14 per cent this year.

Mr Rizal had said the move is part of a wide-ranging strategy to reinforce national sovereignty over the cluster of islands in the South China Sea.

As well as enhancements to the local fishery sector, the plan also involves transforming the Natunas into a tourist destination, tapping the area's rich oil and gas resources and beefing up defence of the islands.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims with China in the South China Sea.

Indonesia is not a party to the disputes but became concerned after Beijing, in March, said the waters around the Natunas, which lie within Indonesia's exclusive economic zone, are part of its "traditional fishing grounds".

Chinese fishing boats have regularly been caught poaching in Indonesia's waters.

As part of Independence Day celebrations today, Indonesia plans to destroy as many as 71 boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

Most of the boats are from Vietnam, with some from China.

In the wide-ranging speech that also touched on economic issues, Mr Joko said the government is targeting a GDP growth of 5.3 per cent next year, from an estimated 5.2 per cent this year.

"Global economy is expected to improve next year, but we need to work very hard to achieve it," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2016, with the headline 'Jokowi backs peaceful end to sea spats'. Print Edition | Subscribe