Indonesia MPs call for military base after fishing spat

They want it set up in Natuna Islands to boost defence after run-in with Chinese coast guard and fishing boat

Filipino students shout anti-Chinese slogans during a rally near Malacanang Palace in Manila, on March 3, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Indonesian lawmakers are calling for a military base to be built in the Natunas to boost defence in the country's central region.

This followed a spat with China last week over the actions of a Chinese coast guard vessel in waters near the islands.

Mr Mahfudz Siddiq, chairman of a House committee on defence and foreign affairs, told reporters last Thursday that the new base would help strengthen the existing regional defence system in the eastern and western regions and improve the military's mobility.

"The development of a military base on Natuna Islands is important for the defence system in the central region of Indonesia, which shares its borders with many countries in the South China Sea," he was quoted as saying by Antara state news agency.

Tensions flared after Indonesia on Monday accused a Chinese coast guard patrol boat of breaching its sovereign rights by forcibly preventing the local maritime authorities from seizing a Chinese fishing boat.

China had maintained that the boat Kway Fey was "in traditional Chinese fishing grounds", a claim which Indonesia has strongly rejected and asked China to clarify.

Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea disputes but it does not recognise the "nine-dash line" that China uses as the basis for its claims in the area.

Mr Mahfudz said the government would require 1.3 trillion rupiah (S$134 million) to develop a base on the island, far more than earlier estimated. It should be ready by 2017, he added.

But the panel's deputy chairman T.B. Hasanudin told The Sunday Times yesterday that the base is not necessarily a post "where military personnel are placed in a particular location ready to be deployed but rather a redisposition of forces". He said: "We are pushing for greater military presence so we want additional personnel and defence equipment in the area."

In response to last week's incident, the coast guard will conduct more patrols in the area, he said.

"If China's actions were intentional, there should be international arbitration but if not, the issue should be resolved diplomatically," he said. "Whatever it is, we will defend every inch of our territory with every means."

Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan last Wednesday also proposed the idea of a military base in the Natunas.

Mr Luhut said: "Now we will do a follow-up. We will transform Natuna Islands akin to an aircraft carrier. It will become a strong military base with the navy and air force there." He noted that President Joko Widodo was also firm on the issue. "It is part of our territorial integrity. The President told me two or three days ago: 'Luhut, I won't compromise.' So that is clear."

Other officials have also spoken against illegal fishing and condemned China's actions as a violation of Indonesia's maritime sovereignty.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline Indonesia MPs call for military base after fishing spat. Subscribe