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Indonesian President visits island in waters disputed by China

JAKARTA Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited an island in waters disputed by China yesterday to assert Indonesia's sovereignty amid a stand-off between Indonesian and Chinese vessels.

The confrontation began in mid-December when a Chinese coast guard vessel accompanying Chinese fishing boats entered waters off the coast of Indonesia's Natuna islands, prompting Jakarta to summon Beijing's ambassador.

Mr Joko 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."

Mr Joko also met with fishermen on the island. Earlier this week, Indonesia deployed more ships and fighter jets to patrol the surrounding waters.

Mr Nursyawal Embun, director of sea operations at the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency, said as of early yesterday, there were two Chinese coast guard vessels present and 10 Indonesian ships 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 recognised 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 pushback against China's territorial ambitions. The dispute has soured Indonesia's generally friendly relationship with China.

Mr Luhut Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, said 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," he said.

China claims most of the South China Sea based on what it says is its historic activity. But South-east Asian countries, supported by the US and much of the rest of the world, say such claims have no legal basis.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing has "opened diplomatic channels" with Indonesia since the latest incident, and said "both countries shoulder responsibility for maintaining regional peace and stability". - REUTERS

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