US wants to cooperate with Indonesia 'in new ways' on South China Sea

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday rejected China's "unlawful claims" in the South China Sea and pledged to cooperate with Indonesia "in new ways" to ensure maritime security in the area.

He praised Indonesia's "decisive action" in safeguarding its maritime sovereignty in the waters surrounding Natuna Islands.

"I am looking forward to cooperating together in the new ways to ensure maritime security protects some of the world's busiest trade routes," he said at a joint press conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Jakarta.

The US Secretary of State is in the Indonesian capital on a stopover in a five-nation Asia tour that has taken him to India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He was due to visit Vietnam later yesterday.

Ms Retno said the South China Sea should be maintained as "a stable and peaceful sea" where international law is respected and implemented.

Ties between Indonesia and China have been tense over sovereignty of the lucrative fishing waters around Indonesia's northern Natuna Islands, which lie between Malaysia and Borneo.

Its exclusive economic zone, a sweep of sea extending 200 nautical miles from shore, overlaps with China's "nine-dash line" claim in the South China Sea.

Incursions by Chinese fishing boats, escorted by Chinese coast guard vessels, on several occasions have raised Jakarta's ire, prompting increased Indonesian patrols and security presence.

Experts say a strong US military presence in the region may help to contain China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, but Indonesia, in principle, will never enter into any formal alliances with major powers.

China is Indonesia's top trading partner and second-largest foreign investor after Singapore.

Ms Retno reiterated her nation's "principle of free and independent" foreign policy at the meeting with Mr Pompeo which "went very well and was productive".

She also, among other things, promoted cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, a concept backed by Asean.

"For more than 50 years, Asean has played a significant role in maintaining peace and stability in the region."

She added: "We are committed to promoting Indo-Pacific cooperation that is open, inclusive, transparent and rules-based."

In Jakarta, Mr Pompeo discussed with President Joko Widodo the South China Sea issue and addressed G.P. Ansor, the youth wing of the world's largest Muslim mass organisation Nahdlatul Ulama.

Both leaders also agreed to strengthen cooperation in the health sector and the economy, and deepen defence cooperation, including boosting military procurement, training and exercises.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2020, with the headline US wants to cooperate with Indonesia 'in new ways' on South China Sea. Subscribe