JAKARTA - Indonesia’s president visited the Natuna Islands aboard a warship Thursday, making a bold move to assert sovereignty over the area in the southern reaches of the South China Sea after Beijing stated an “overlapping claim” on nearby waters.
President Joko “Jokowi” Jokowi’s visit along with his chief security minister and foreign minister was described by Indonesian officials as the strongest message that has been given to China over the issue.
A presidential palace statement said Jokowi intended to hold a Cabinet meeting aboard the warship.
“In the course of our history, we’ve never been this stern (with China). This is also to demonstrate that the president is not taking the issue lightly,” Chief Security Minister Luhut Pandjaitan told The Jakarta Post newspaper.
Beijing said Monday that while China does not dispute Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands, “some waters of the South China Sea” were subject to “overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests.”
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on Wednesday rejected China’s stance, saying the waters around Natuna are in Indonesian territory.
The remote island chain has a small civilian population. Jakarta objects to Beijing’s inclusion of waters around the islands within China’s “nine-dash line,” a demarcation line used by Beijing to show its claim to the South China Sea.
Despite the objection, Indonesia is not part of a broader regional dispute over China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea and Beijing’s claims on swaths of key waterways.
China’s Foreign Ministry said over the weekend that an Indonesian naval vessel fired on a Chinese fishing boat near the chain of islands Friday, wounding one person.
In response, Indonesia’s navy said it had fired warning shots at several boats with Chinese flags it accused of fishing illegally but that nobody was wounded.
It was the third reported confrontation near the Natunas this year and comes amid rising regional tensions over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said Monday the Southeast Asian nation would be more assertive in protecting its exclusive right to the waters around the Natuna Islands.
Indonesia has about 800 military personnel in the Natuna region. This year, the number will rise to about 2,000.
Despite this more assertive stance, Retno said relations between the two countries remained good.
“This is a matter of law enforcement, not politics,” she said.
Jokowi’s visit to the remote island chain, which lies over 340 km (212 miles) off the northwest tip of Kalimantan — Indonesia’s portion of Borneo island — 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,” Jokowi said in a statement, referring to those infrastructure ambitions.