Jakarta ready to play active role in S. China Sea: Jokowi

 Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington on Oct 26, 2015.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce dinner in Washington on Oct 26, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesia stands ready to play an active role in the South China Sea, said Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Washington, stressing to the American audience that his administration was not becoming more inward-looking.

Speaking at research organisation Brookings Institution on Tuesday, a day after news emerged that the United States navy had challenged Beijing's claims in the sea by sailing close to two Chinese man-made islands, the Indonesian leader stressed the importance of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the area.

And while he did not directly address the US military operation, he said Indonesia was monitoring developments even though it is not a claimant in the territorial disputes.

"We reject any attempt by any state to control and dominate the sea and turn it into an arena for strategic competition. The sea should be safe, secure and free for seaborne trade. The sea is a source of livelihood for our people," he said.

Mr Joko also said it is important for Asean and China to make progress on a binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

"Indonesia stands ready to play an active role in finding solutions to the South China Sea problem. We believe it is time for Asean and China to start discussing the elements of the Code of Conduct," he said.

Mr Joko's remarks seemed to be targeted specifically at concerns from the US that the Indonesian leader was abandoning the more ambitious foreign policy of his predecessor.

Washington sees Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country and the third largest democracy, as an important strategic partner in South-east Asia.

Perhaps in recognition of those concerns, Mr Joko said: "We are not becoming inward-looking. Our interest in regional and international engagement remains as strong as ever and will be stronger in the years to come. Our foreign policy will continue to reflect both our national interest and our international obligation."

In his wide-ranging speech, Mr Joko also held up Indonesia as a model Muslim-majority nation, making what turned out to be a pointed message in a country that continues to grapple with Islamophobia.

"I believe as Europe and America are dealing with an influx of people of different religions and races, we in Indonesia have something very special to offer to the world.

"Indonesia offers a successful model that shows that Islam is compatible not only with democracy but also with modernity," he said.

The Indonesian leader had to cut short his trip and is due to return to Indonesia today to address the problem of widespread forest fires.

"This is a huge challenge but we are committed to finding solutions to the problem, and we will be working with our partners in the region to this end," he said.

Jeremy Au Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2015, with the headline 'Jakarta ready to play active role in S. China Sea: Jokowi'. Subscribe