Visiting Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe met with his Indonesian counterpart, Prabowo Subianto, to discuss tensions in the South China Sea and to coordinate efforts against COVID-19, an Indonesian Defense Ministry spokesman said Tuesday.
Wei’s Indonesia visit came one day after he met Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Lumpur, and ahead of a series of ASEAN ministerial meetings from Wednesday to Saturday, where tensions in South China Sea are expected to be discussed.
Prabowo spokesman Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak said the ministers discussed cooperation in the defense sector.
“On the South China Sea, Indonesia is committed to promoting intense dialogue to maintain peace in the region,” Dahnil told BenarNews.
Dahnil said Wei’s visit was in response to Prabowo’s trip to China in December 2019 when he met military leaders and visited the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) headquarters. The two also met in Moscow on June 24 during the 75th anniversary ceremony of Russia’s victory in World War II.
In a statement, the Indonesian Defense Ministry said Wei and Prabowo also discussed strategies to fight COVID-19.
Indonesia on Tuesday reported more than 200,000 infections and more than 8,200 deaths as a result of the coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University. Globally, more than 27.4 million infections and more than 894,000 deaths have been recorded.
Tensions have been notching up in the South China Sea, where six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries that overlap with the sweeping claims of China. They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
The Indonesian government earlier this year accused Chinese fishing boats of operating in the nation’s waters off the Natuna Islands, triggering diplomatic tensions.
Tight-lipped in Malaysia
Wei was in Kuala Lumpur on Monday for meetings with Muhyiddin and Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
But Malaysian officials were tight-lipped about the visit. A spokesman for the Malaysian Ministry of Defense declined to comment, while an aide to Muhyiddin did not respond to text messages and calls.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Wei’s meeting with Muhyiddin was likely to iron out details before the ASEAN meetings later this week.
“The fact that China’s defense minister himself flew down to Kuala Lumpur is a surprise,” Oh told BenarNews.
Wei, meanwhile, issued a statement to China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
“As the overall situation in the South China Sea has remained stable, China is willing to work with countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations including Malaysia, to meet each other halfway so as to keep the peace and tranquility of the South China Sea,” he said.
However, ship-tracking data and satellite imagery show that a Chinese coast guard ship has been patrolling in Malaysian waters near the Luconia Shoals since at least July 31.
The shoals are a series of features at the southernmost end of the South China Sea, most of which are completely submerged. While China claims them as part of its “historic rights,” they are completely within 200 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak, Malaysia, and thus sit within Malaysia’s waters and exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.
Malaysia has endured repeated incursions in the past – its auditor-general in July noted that Chinese ships had entered Malaysian waters 89 times between 2016 and 2019.
Last week, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui spoke at an international forum on the South China Sea, emphasizing China-ASEAN relations and reiterating Beijing’s rejection of a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration case that struck down virtually all of China’s claims to the disputed waters.
Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur and Drake Long in Washington contributed to this report.