JAKARTA (Reuters) – President Joko Widodo visited an island in waters disputed by China on Wednesday to assert Indonesia’s sovereignty amid a standoff between Indonesian and Chinese vessels.
The confrontation began in mid-December when a Chinese coast guard vessel and fishing boats, entered waters in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone, off the coast of the northern Natuna islands, prompting Jakarta to summon Beijing’s ambassador.
Widodo told reporters on Natuna Besar island that the disputed waters belong solely to Indonesia.
“We have a district here, a regent, and a governor here,” he said. “There are no more debates. De facto, de jure, Natuna is Indonesia.”
Widodo also met with fishermen on the island. Earlier this week, Indonesia deployed more ships and fighter jets to patrol the surrounding waters. Nursyawal Embun, the director of sea operations at the Maritime Security Agency, said as of Wednesday morning that two Chinese coast guard vessels remained, while 10 Indonesian ships were on patrol.
China has not claimed the Natuna islands themselves, but says it has nearby fishing rights within a self-proclaimed Nine-Dash Line that includes most of the South China Sea – a claim that is not recognized internationally.
In 2017, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, as part of a push back against China’s maritime territorial ambitions.
The dispute has soured Indonesia’s generally friendly relationship with China, its biggest trading partner and a major investor in Southeast Asia’s largest country.
In an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime resources and investment, said that both Beijing and Jakarta will forge ahead with diplomatic discussions.
“What’s the point of war? Nothing. Wars are the last step to a failing diplomatic process,” Pandjaitan said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, a global trade route with rich fishing grounds and energy reserves, based on what it says is its historic activity. But Southeast Asian countries, supported by the United States and much of the rest of the world, say such claims have no legal basis.
On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing and Jakarta are in contact through diplomatic channels. “We wish to, with Indonesia, continue to appropriately deal with differences and uphold peace and stability in bilateral relations and the region,” Geng said.
The last peak in tensions between Indonesia and China over the South China Sea was in 2016. At the time, Widodo held a meeting with several of his ministers on board a naval ship in a show of support.
(The story refiles to edit to refer to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as Geng is second to last par)
(Reporting by Fransiska Nangoy, Wilda Asmarini and Stanley Widianto in Jakarta and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Simon Cameron-Moore)