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Indonesia wary of Chinese vessels in South China Sea

The Japan News - February 28, 2024

Daisuke Kawakami, Tokyo – Chinese ships continue to appear in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Natuna Islands in the northern part of the country in the South China Sea, where China is continuing its maritime expansion.

Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who appears set to become the next president, has called for the strengthening of national defense capabilities. However, balancing relationships with China, an important economic partner, is likely to be an issue.

Natuna Besar, the largest of the Natuna Islands, is home to a surveillance base of Indonesia's Maritime Security Agency, which is the equivalent of the Japan Coast Guard. Using surveillance cameras and other equipment, the agency is on 24-hour alert for illegal operations in the surrounding waters.

Ilham, the head of the base, stood in front of a monitor showing information on vessels sailing in the area during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun on Jan. 31. "The situation with Chinese vessels has not changed in recent years," Ilham, 43, said. Regarding an area in the South China Sea where China makes vast unilateral territorial claims, he stressed, "We don't recognize it."

In the surrounding EEZ, the presence of Chinese vessels, including those of the China Coast Guard, was confirmed eight times from January to September last year. Chinese vessels have been seen with similar frequency in the past few years.

The island's main industry is fishing, and local residents are wary of the Chinese vessels. In 2022, a China Coast Guard vessel approached a local fisherman's boat and told him to leave the area after showing him a map.

"We can't compete as we are on a small wooden boat. The government should increase its vigilance activities," the 37-year-old fisherman said.

The administration of President Joko Widodo, who took office in 2014, has been nervous about China's moves and named the waters around the Natuna Islands as the North Natuna Sea in 2017. Joko visited the island in 2020.

In an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in December 2023, Joko said, without naming China, "Respect for international law is important as the key to peace and stability in the South China Sea."

The Indonesian military conducted its largest-ever exercise with the U.S. military in 2022. Last year, Indonesia received patrol vessels from Japan to counter illegal fishing, and the two nations are strengthening cooperation between their coast guard authorities, as well.

Prabowo, who positioned himself in this month's presidential election as the candidate to provide continuity as a successor to the Joko administration, has announced a policy of increasing the military presence in remote islands and border areas, and is expected to deepen cooperation with Japan and the United States.

However, Indonesia's economic ties with China – its largest trading partner – are extremely deep. Chinese investment will be indispensable in developing the country's abundant natural resources, such as nickel, and in promoting plans to relocate the capital.

After his presumptive election victory was reported on Feb. 18, Prabowo greeted China's ambassador to Indonesia, who came to congratulate Prabowo at his home. After taking office in October, he is likely to face delicate decisions on security and trade policies.

Source: https://asianews.network/indonesia-wary-of-chinese-vessels-in-south-china-sea