Indonesia will not negotiate its sovereignty in South China Sea

An F-16 C fighter jet arrives at Raden Sadjad military airbase on Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia on Jan 7, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo will visit Natuna Islands on Wednesday (Jan 8) amid renewed tensions with China over the lucrative fishing waters that lie between Malaysia and Borneo.

Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, will meet hundreds of fishermen in the area following the sighting of Chinese fishing vessels and coast guard ships near the Natuna Islands in recent weeks, according to a statement on the cabinet secretariat website.

Indonesia has sent warships and 120 fishing vessels to patrol the area, Indonesian authorities said.

On Tuesday, the Indonesian Air Force deployed four F-16 fighter jets to the islands, Detik news site reported.

While Indonesia claims the incursion of the fishing vessel were in violation of international laws, China said it is operating legally. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said during a regular briefing on Tuesday both sides have been in communication using diplomatic channels.

"Between us, friendship and cooperation is the mainstream while difference merely a branch," Geng said. "Both China and Indonesia shoulder the important task of safeguarding regional peace and stability."

The situation comes as both countries prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year.

Jokowi said the increased presence of Chinese ships in the disputed waters since December was a violation of international law. Speaking at a plenary cabinet session in Jakarta on Monday, he said there would be "no negotiation when it comes to our sovereignty".

"This is our sovereign right," Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after the cabinet meeting, urging China to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

"Indonesia will never recognise nine dash lines or unilateral claims made by China that do not have legal reasons recognised by international law."

The latest conflict follows accusations by the US and other coastal states in Southeast Asia that China was taking a more aggressive stance on its claims to more than 80 per cent of the lucrative waters in the South China Sea. China has said it is operating legally, and has called on the US to stop interfering in the region.

There were several reported incidents involving Chinese coast guard vessels entering waters controlled by other claimants last year, including one that resulted in a nearly four-month-long standoff with Vietnam. Malaysia also drew an objection from Beijing on Dec 12 when it issued a submission to the UN defining its continental shelf.

The incident began more than two weeks ago when Chinese coast guard vessels escorting dozens of fishing vessels were spotted in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone, the Jakarta Post reported, triggering the foreign ministry to send a diplomatic protest to Beijing on Dec 30.

China responded the next day, with Geng saying the country has sovereignty over the nearby Spratly Islands and their waters in the northeast, which had for years been traditional Chinese fishing grounds.

Last year, the Indonesian government announced plans to develop the lucrative fishing grounds near Natuna in part to assert its sovereign authority there. It also pledged to build new cold-storage facilities to turn the area into a functional fishing hub by the year's end.

This is not the first time the two sides have faced conflict near Natuna. Indonesia has for years fended off fisherman from coastal Asian countries caught poaching in its waters - confiscating and destroying hundreds of boats, some of which were Chinese.

Indonesia's moves are reminiscent of 2016 when Jokowi took similar actions - including issuing a similar statement on the country's sovereignty, sending F-16s to the area and making personal visits there - following several incursions by Chinese fishing boats and its coast guard. Jakarta has nevertheless sought to remain neutral in the wider dispute.

"This is how it has responded since the 2016 incursions. So if there was posturing, it was back then," said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Southeast Asian Political Change and Foreign Policy program. "Indonesian policy has been remarkably consistent on this issue."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.