Indonesian President Joko Widodo vowed on Wednesday to enforce his country’s sovereignty over waters off the Natuna Islands as he visited the region amid diplomatic tensions with China over maritime rights.
The visit to the island chain in the South China Sea was the second of his presidency, after Jokowi, as he is known, held a cabinet meeting aboard a warship in the Natunas in June 2016, following a similar flare-up of tensions due to Beijing asserting claims on nearby waters.
“I’m here to make sure that legal sovereignty over our maritime resources in the exclusive economic zone [EEZ] is enforced,” Jokowi said during the visit, according to remarks released by his office.
The president also inspected two warships and an air force base near Ranai, the main town in the island group.
Jokowi later tweeted that he was informed by his military chief that there were foreign ships in Indonesia’s EEZ, but not in its territorial sea.
“In that zone, international vessels can pass freely, but Indonesia has a right to resources within it. Indonesia has sovereignty rights to arrest or expel foreign vessels that are trying to exploit the resources illegally,” he said on Twitter.
The EEZ is an area extending up to 200 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state. Territorial seas extend 12 nautical miles from that baseline.
‘We expelled them’
A deputy of operations at the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla), Chokky Hutabarat, said the Chinese ships had begun sailing away from Indonesia’s EEZ.
“We expelled them. They have moved away to the north,” he told BenarNews.
Jakarta has deployed at least eight warships in the region off the Natunas to ward off encroaching Chinese fishing vessels, and sent four F-16 fighter jets to the area on Tuesday.
On Jan. 5, military officials said about 30 Chinese ships had been sighted in Indonesian territory, accompanied by two Chinese coast guard ships and a fishing surveillance vessel.
The previous month, the Foreign Ministry summoned Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian to protest the presence of at least 65 Chinese ships in Indonesia’s EEZ off the Natuna islands.
China has insisted that its fishermen have legitimate rights to operate in the area.
In Natuna, Jokowi met local fishermen at the newly established Integrated Marine and Fisheries Center.
“The government wants our marine resources in Natuna to be exploited for the utmost benefit of the people here,” he told the fishermen.
“Don’t ever question or doubt. Natuna has always been Indonesia,” he added.
On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Jakarta and Beijing had communicated through diplomatic channels.
“China always views bilateral relationship with Indonesia from a strategic and long-term perspective,” he said. “We believe Indonesia will also have in mind the bigger picture of bilateral relations and regional stability, properly resolve differences with China and foster favorable atmosphere.”
Beijing claims nearly all of the contested South China Sea, a vital sea lane through which shipping trade valued at about U.S. $5 trillion passes each year.
Indonesia traditionally has not been among nations speaking out about overlapping claims in the sea, portions of which are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Following a series of encounters with Chinese ships in Indonesian waters in 2016, including one in which the Indonesian Navy fired warning shots at Chinese-flagged vessels, Indonesia further irritated Beijing by renaming the area the North Natuna Sea.
In 2018, Indonesia began building a military base on Natuna Besar, the regency’s main island, which will reportedly house several branches of the armed forces when completed as well submarines, warships and fighter jets. Ryamizard Ryacudu, the defense minister during Jokowi’s first term, envisioned the base as a future “Pearl Harbor.”
Evan Laksmana, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the government should seek “a realistic strategic outcome” in dealing with China.
“Getting Beijing to publicly renounce its (illegal) claims seems like a bridge too far as they remain central to China’s domestic legitimacy,” he said in an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post on Wednesday.
“Instead, we should focus on getting China to modify its behavior in the North Natuna Sea in the long run,” he said.
Indonesia should consider a stronger pushback beyond protest notes, including recalling its ambassador in Beijing if China refuses to leave the waters, Evan said.
“There are other steps we can take should the need arise, including reviewing existing cooperative activities and engagement,” he said.
“If anything, Jokowi should be more willing to take risks in his final term. There are no easy paths to long-lasting legacies and there is none harder than laying a strong foundation for a more equitable strategic partnership with China,” he wrote.