JAKARTA: President Joko Widodo visited remote Indonesian islands on a warship on Thursday in an apparent show of force after clashes with Chinese vessels and as fears grow Beijing is seeking to stake a claim in the area.
Widodo led a high-level delegation including the foreign minister and armed forces chief to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, arriving at a navy base before being escorted to the warship as fighter jets buzzed overhead and navy vessels performed maneuvers off the coast.
He was due to host a cabinet meeting on the warship, which last week detained a Chinese trawler accused of operating illegally in Indonesian waters.
Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan said the visit was aimed at sending a “clear message” that Indonesia was “very serious in its effort to protect its sovereignty”.
“In the course of our history, we’ve never been this stern,” Panjaitan, who accompanied Widodo on the visit, told The Jakarta Post newspaper.
Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung added that “Natuna is Indonesian territory—that is final.”
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost the entire strategically important South China Sea, and regional tensions are mounting due to Chinese island building and ahead of a UN-backed tribunal’s ruling on a Philippine challenge to China’s claims.
Unlike some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Indonesia has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with China in the sea and has no overlapping claims to reefs or islets there.
Beijing itself has said it recognizes Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natuna Islands.
But its claims overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone—waters where a state has the right to exploit resources—around the Natunas, and Widodo’s visit came after a sharp escalation in maritime clashes with China in the area this year.
Following a clash last week, Beijing said China and Indonesia had overlapping claims “for maritime rights and interests” in the area, raising concerns that Beijing is toughening its stance by openly acknowledging a dispute with Jakarta.
Indonesia’s foreign minister insisted Wednesday that the country does not have any overlapping claims in its waters with China.