Jokowi plays down stand-off with China in the Natunas

Indonesian leader calms fears over China's actions while maintaining ties with country

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo during a visit to the Natuna Islands on Wednesday, after reports of alleged intrusion by Chinese vessels last month.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo during a visit to the Natuna Islands on Wednesday, after reports of alleged intrusion by Chinese vessels last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

President Joko Widodo has played down the stand-off between Indonesian and Chinese vessels in the abundant fishing waters off the north-western coast of Borneo, prompting analysts to say he is trying to reduce tensions and maintain ties between the two countries.

"I asked the Indonesian military commander, are there foreign ships entering Indonesian territorial sea? As it turns out, none," the President wrote on Facebook on Wednesday, after visiting a military base on the Natuna Islands.

On Monday, Mr Joko asserted that Indonesia's sovereignty was "non-negotiable" after reports that two Chinese coast guard vessels and about 60 Chinese fishing boats had been spotted last month in the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), near the Natuna Sea.

Fighter jets and warships were deployed and the foreign ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta to deliver a diplomatic note protesting against the Chinese encroachment.

Mr Joko, who is popularly known as Jokowi, said Chinese vessels were in Indonesia's EEZ, which spans 200 nautical miles from a territory's coast, but not in its territorial sea, which is limited to 12 nautical miles.

"In this zone (EEZ), international ships can pass freely, and Indonesia has the rights over the natural resources and to exercise its rule of law," including capturing or chasing away vessels trying to "illegally exploit the natural wealth", he said.

Mr Joko's visit to the Natunas shows he takes the issue seriously, but his latest remarks indicate that he does not want the stand-off to continue and become heated, analysts told The Straits Times.

"The Indonesian media is portraying this as a matter of sovereignty. Jokowi cannot walk away from an issue of this magnitude, and needs to be seen to lead," said Dr Greg Raymond, a research fellow at the Australian National University.

The President also does not want to jeopardise good ties with Indonesia's biggest trading partner and a major investor. Both countries enjoy broad cooperation, including in infrastructure development such as the high-speed railway project linking Jakarta, the capital, with Bandung. The US$6 billion (S$8 billion) project is part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative to connect China with Asia, Europe and beyond.

"Jokowi is trapped between two interests (sovereignty and the economy)," political scientist Arbi Sanit said. "Business with China must not be ruined. Indonesia has a big appetite to develop its infrastructure but it has no money. And China has been investing a lot, so it's a difficult situation."

Indeed, Mr Joko's ministers are eager to keep the issues separate. Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan said: "Let me be clear that the EEZ has to do with the economy and not sovereignty - these are two very different beasts."


But as much as Indonesia needs China for investments, the latter is also looking at South-east Asia's largest economy for resources.

In a sign of a softening stance in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China and Indonesia have been in contact over the issue.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Geng stressed that China and Indonesia have no disputes over territorial sovereignty, but said there are "overlapping claims of maritime rights and interests in some areas in the South China Sea".

He said: "China hopes Indonesia will remain calm. We would like to handle our differences with Indonesia in a proper way and uphold our bilateral relations as well as peace and stability in the region."

But Mr Geng maintained that China had sovereignty over Nansha Islands - the Chinese name for the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea - and sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters, a position it said was in accordance with international law.

Indonesia's military yesterday said Chinese coast guard vessels and fishing boats had left the relevant waters, after Mr Joko's visit.

China claims most of the South China Sea, bringing it into dispute with the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Indonesia has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natunas. Beijing has claimed some of the waters around the Natunas as part of its "traditional fishing grounds".

International law expert Hikmahanto Juwana felt the recent incident was simply China testing the resolve of the new Indonesian government of Mr Joko, who was re-elected last April.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2020, with the headline 'Jokowi plays down stand-off with China in the Natunas'. Subscribe