JAKARTA (AFP) – Indonesia has deployed fighter jets and warships to patrol islands near the disputed South China Sea, the military said yesterday, escalating tensions with Beijing after a diplomatic spat over “trespassing” Chinese vessels.
President Joko Widodo also headed yesterday to the fishing-rich waters around the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China despite competing claims from other Southeast Asian nations.
The Indonesian military said it had deployed eight warships and four jet fighters ahead of Widodo’s visit in an apparent bid to assert its sovereignty over the region.
“I have said many times Natuna is our sovereign territory,” Widodo told reporters.
“There is nothing to be debated…I hope this is clear.”
A Chinese coast guard vessel was spotted in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone yesterday, the government said.
“We have deployed eight warships,” said Navy spokesman Fajar Tri Rohadi.
The air force said fighter jets had also been deployed.
“(But) our personnel have been told that we are not going to make provocations but rather protect our territory,” said Air Commodore Ronny Irianto Moningka.
China’s foreign ministry downplayed the incident and said there was “no dispute over territorial sovereignty” between Beijing and Jakarta – though the two have “overlapping claims for maritime rights” in the South China Sea.
Indonesia does not lay claim in the South China Sea, but said it would not tolerate incursions by China – a key trading partner – into its nearby waters.
“We are willing to continue to properly handle differences with Indonesia,” said spokesman Geng Shuang at a press briefing in Beijing yesterday.