Updated at 7:13 p.m. ET on 2020-01-06
Indonesia’s sovereignty over waters off the Natuna Islands cannot be negotiated, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said Monday, after local media reported that Chinese ships, which had entered Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea, were refusing to leave.
The Indonesian military was dispatching four ships to the region in addition to three warships and two aircraft deployed there last week, Vice Adm. Yudo Margono, chief of the Joint Regional Defense Command, said on Sunday. On Friday, dozens of Chinese fishing boats and a trio of Chinese coast guard ships had been spotted in Natuna area waters, according to an Indonesian news report.
“On the Natuna issue, I think all statements [from Indonesian officials] so far have been good, that the sovereignty of our territory is non-negotiable,” Jokowi said during a cabinet meeting.
In addition to the military ships, about 120 fishermen from the northern coast of Java island would be sent to the Natunas to strengthen the Indonesian presence in the region, according to Mohammad Mahfud, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
“We want to mobilize fishermen from the northern coast and maybe from other areas too to fish and conduct other activities there,” Mahfud said.
Officials said that about 30 Chinese ships had been sighted in Indonesian territory and refusing to leave, the national news agency Antara reported on Sunday. Government officials could not be reached on Monday to report on the status of the Chinese ships in the region.
“They were accompanied by two coast guard vessels and one Chinese fishing surveillance vessel,” Margono, the vice admiral, told Antara. “We are also actively communicating with Chinese coast guard vessels so that they immediately leave the waters.”
Margono said the Indonesian ships would stay in the region until China left the EEZ.
China is Indonesia’s biggest trading partner and third-largest foreign investor.
A diplomatic row between the two countries erupted last week after Indonesian officials complained that dozens of Chinese fishing boats and coast guard ships had trespassed since Dec. 19 into the economic zone off the Natunas, a group of Indonesian islands in the southern reaches of the disputed South China Sea.
“Foreigners can’t enter our territory even an inch without the government’s approval,” Mahfud told reporters. “We are not at war, we are simply protecting our sovereignty, but there’s no negotiation because the area is ours and it’s final under international law.”
Last week, the Indonesian government dismissed as “legally baseless” China’s historical claims to the waters off the Natunas on the grounds that Chinese fishermen have long been active in those waters. Jakarta summoned Chinese Ambassador Xiao Qian to lodge a protest over alleged violations, but Beijing officials insisted they had a legitimate right to sail ships in the area.
In 2016, after a series of encounters with Chinese ships in Indonesian waters, including one where the Indonesian Navy fired warning shots at Chinese-flagged vessels, Indonesia irritated Beijing by renaming the maritime region the North Natuna Sea.
Jakarta then launched an ambitious five-point plan for developing the Natunas involving military facilities, fisheries, tourism, oil and gas, and preservation of the environment.
Indonesia has traditionally not been involved in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about U.S. $5 trillion in trade passes annually.
China, through its so-called Nine-Dash Line, claims almost all of the sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own overlapping claims to portions of those waters.
A South China Sea analyst based in the United States said Beijing’s Nine-Dash Line overlaps with Indonesia’s EEZ in waters off the Natunas.
“A half of one of China’s nine dashes in the South China Sea lies within the EEZ claimed by Indonesia based on its Natuna Islands,” Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, told BenarNews.
“And the imagined Nine-Dash Line significantly overlaps with the waters claimed by Indonesia as its EEZ around the Natuna Islands, although China does not claim the Natuna Islands.”
BenarNews staff in Washington contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misattributed the quote about foreigners not being able to enter Indonesian territorial waters to Vice Adm. Yudo Margono.