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Indonesia officials in Natuna to gird frontier

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Indonesian coordinating political, legal and security affairs minister Mahfud MD (centre, in white) and home minister Tito Karnavian visit the North Natuna Sea aboard the KRI Semarang-594 naval hospital ship on Tuesday. THE JAKARTA POST

Indonesia officials in Natuna to gird frontier

Aboard a navy hospital ship, Indonesia’s chief security minister and home minister embarked on November 23 on a two-day tour of the nation’s outermost islands adjacent to the South China Sea, in a move reaffirming the state’s commitment to developing the outlying region and safeguarding its maritime borders.

Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, set sail alongside home minister Tito Karnavian aboard a Makassar-class landing platform dock to the Natuna island chain, Riau Islands province, to check on the progress of development at its furthest frontier.

The ministers were also scheduled to tour the archipelago’s northernmost outpost, Laut Island, by helicopter on November 24. The island is close to the site of Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which has in recent years seen an uptick in illegal incursions by foreign vessels.

But Mahfud insists that his voyage there has more to do with the state’s plan to fortify the nation’s border regions. “It has nothing to do with China,” he said at a joint press briefing with journalists aboard the KRI Semarang-594.

“We’re developing our borders; there’s nothing being done that is specifically geared to any one country.” Mahfud previously drew a red line on the need to consult with Beijing on Jakarta’s exclusive rights in the area, part of which China claims to be its traditional fishing grounds, based on claims in the South China Sea.

He also led a meeting in the North Natuna Sea aboard the same ship a week after President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo symbolically visited the area in January last year after a tense maritime skirmish with Chinese Coast Guard vessels set off a diplomatic row.

Tito, who was leading the tour in his capacity as the leader of the National Border Management Agency (BNPP), acknowledged that Natuna regency was a strategic border area where there were overlapping EEZ rights with Vietnam, which are overshadowed by China’s claims.

“In Natuna, we have overlapping claims with Vietnam in our EEZ … Secondly, we know that China also has what it calls the Nine-Dash Line as [markers for] its traditional fishing grounds, which is why there are a lot of [Chinese] fishing boats in our waters, and we don’t accept that,” he told reporters after meeting Natuna authorities on November 23.

An EEZ covers waters 200 nautical miles (370km) out from a nation’s coastline, conferring it with exclusive rights to exploit marine resources in the column of water within the designated area, according to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Both Indonesia and China have signed the treaty.

China has claimed that based on “historical rights” in the South China Sea, its activities in the Natuna waters were meant to assert its sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, another contested maritime feature in the area, as well as sovereign rights and jurisdiction over “relevant waters” nearby.

An international tribunal invalidated those claims in 2016. Jakarta has also reintroduced the waters as the North Natuna Sea, further drawing the ire of Beijing.

The coordinating minister’s visit to Natuna comes off the back of a virtual ASEAN-China Summit on November 22, in which Chinese President Xi Jinping told his counterparts that Beijing would not seek “hegemony” in Southeast Asia.

At the same time, tensions over the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea continued to spike in recent weeks after Chinese coast guard ships fired their water cannon at Philippine boats delivering supplies to the Spratlys.

Manila’s defence minister accused the Chinese ships of “intimidation and harassment” on November 23, while Beijing insisted that its permission was not sought, AFP reports.

The two countries are locked in a decades-long territorial dispute over the global trade waterway, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan as well.

Meanwhile, talks on a set of guidelines on the rules of engagement at sea have moved at a glacial pace.

President Jokowi told Xi and other ASEAN leaders on November 22 that it was “our collective responsibility” to ensure regional peace and stability and that international law was respected, Indonesian foreign minister Retno LP Marsudi said in a pre-recorded briefing after the summit.

Indonesia insists it is not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial dispute.

In order to address such concerns in the national security context, Tito said the state needed to strengthen its border regions and the nation’s claim to sovereignty, both through traditional means like constant military presence, but also through other means such as bolstering local economies.

The minister said he “acutely understands” that the Natuna regency does not have sufficient means to develop and achieve national development targets, which is why the central and regional governments are “ready to assist”.

He revealed plans for the government to construct new border outposts (PBLN) at Selasan Island and said construction had already reached 60 per cent progress. Once ready, the outposts will be operated by the BNPP, which oversees 27 state bodies and 17 provincial administrations in the management of border regions.

BNPP secretary Restuardy Daud previously said the visit was meant to “encourage the accelerated development of state boundaries and border areas, as well as improve defence and security infrastructure in the outer islands”.

On the first day of the Natuna tour, Mahfud and Tito’s entourage visited the marine and fisheries hub at Selat Lampa Port on Natuna Besar Island.

Led by former maritime affairs and fisheries minister Susi Pudjiastuti, the facility was built to accommodate fishing activities in Fisheries Management Area (WPP) 711, which covers the Karimata Strait, the Natuna Sea and the North Natuna Sea.

The hub is equipped with cold storage systems and other facilities to support export activities that help develop the local economy.

The ministers also met Riau Islands governor Ansar Ahmad and Natuna Regent Wan Siswandi to discuss development in the region, alongside officials from the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) and the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla).

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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