Indonesian president boards warship in defiance of China’s maritime claims

By The Jakarta Post, Reuters   June 23, 2016 | 02:59 pm GMT+7
Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's visit aboard a warship to Natuna in the Riau Islands Province on Thursday and a cabinet minister's refusal to acknowledge China’s nine-dash line are the latest moves in the current maritime frictions between the two countries.

A presidential palace statement said Widodo intended to hold a cabinet meeting aboard the warship today.

The president’s visit will send a clear message that Indonesia is very serious in its attempt to protect its sovereignty, Indonesia’s Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan said on Wednesday, as quoted by The Jakarta Post.

“In our course of history, we’ve never been this stern [to China]. This is to demonstrate that the president is not taking the issue lightly,” Luhut said.

Chinese coast guard ship 3303 passes near Imam Bonjol warship 383 as the Indonesian Navy pursues the Han Tan Cou fishing vessel entering Indonesia's Natuna waters on June 17. The Navy caught the China-flagged boat suspected of illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. Photo by Indonesia's Antara

Chinese coast guard ship 3303 passes near Indonesia's Imam Bonjol warship as it pursues a Chinese fishing vessel that entered Indonesian waters on June 17. Photo by Indonesia's Antara

Beijing said on Monday that while China does not dispute Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, "some waters of the South China Sea (Vietnam’s East Sea)" were subject to "overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests," according to a Reuters report on June 23.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Wednesday rejected China's stance, saying the waters around Natuna are in Indonesian territory.

According to Reuters, there have been a series of face-offs between Indonesian and Chinese vessels in the area but both sides have denied that the matter is a territorial or diplomatic dispute.

Widodo's visit to the remote island chain, which lies over 340 kilometres (212 miles) off the northwest tip of Kalimantan - Indonesia's portion of Borneo - was also aimed at promoting infrastructure development in Indonesia's border areas.

"We want to show that Indonesia is a big country and we have to show this physically," Widodo said in a statement, referring to those infrastructure ambitions.

Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia is not a claimant in the dispute, but around 83,000 square meters of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in Natuna is included within the area demarcated by the nine-dash line, The Jakarta Post said.

It is on this basis that China’s coast guard and fishing fleet often operate there, claiming the waters to constitute part of the country’s “traditional fishing grounds”.

“We have already conveyed our position to Beijing, but we want to amplify it again in Natuna; we refuse to acknowledge the nine-dash line and the claims of traditional fishing grounds. We also don’t want any power projections [by major powers in the region], and we want to ensure freedom of navigation,” Luhut added.

The visit came after Beijing protested to Jakarta over the detention of its citizens caught fishing by the navy in Indonesian waters last week. A Chinese fisherman was injured at the weekend when the Indonesia Navy seized a China-flagged vessel, the Han Tan Cou 19038, along with seven crew members, for allegedly poaching in Natuna waters, part of the South China Sea (Vietnam’s East Sea) that China claims falls within its nine-dash-line territory.

But Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said on Wednesday that Indonesia will not formally protest to the Chinese government following the latest incident in Natuna. "Communication with China is still ongoing, and our relationship with China remains good," she told kompass.com.

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