The Jakarta Post
In what may be perceived as a further snub to Australia, the Indonesian Military ( TNI ) has said its decision to allow Chinese naval vessels to pass through waters in Indonesia's southern territory near Australia was in the nation's best interest.
The fleet, consisting of surface vessels and submarines, was returning to China from anti-piracy training in the Gulf of Aden last week, said TNI spokesman Rear Adm. Iskandar Sitompul late on Thursday.
'It was okay for them to pass through our territory, as they were in 'normal mode', meaning that all of their submarines stayed on the surface and their helicopters remained on the ships' helipads,' he said.
He also said it was in Indonesia's best interests to forge closer relations with China by accommodating their requests.
'Consider it a token of our friendship [with China],' he said.
Iskandar added that the Chinese fleet's movements had been coordinated with the Foreign Ministry.
While Iskandar declined to provide details of the voyage, the Royal Australian Air Force explained, as quoted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that the warships had sailed south through the Sunda Strait, located between Sumatra and Java, and continued east along the coast of Java ' which is close to Australia's Christmas Island.
The ships then headed north to return to China through the Lombok Strait between Lombok and Bali islands. The route taken was unusual as it was not the shortest way home.
The passage of the fleet has provoked concern in some sections of the Australian media, with claims that China's maneuvers in the area posed a threat to Australia's defense amid China's expanding and aggressive military stature.
The timing of the incident could not have been worse as relations between Australia and Indonesia are currently at a low ebb due to revelations in November of attempts by Australia's intelligence agencies to tap the telephones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.
A recent incursion by Australian patrol boats into Indonesian territorial waters in an effort to intercept a boat full of suspected asylum seekers has also fueled resentment on Indonesia's side.
Closer military ties between Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy and most-populous nation, and China are seen as a possible threat to the interests of the US and its allies, including Australia, as well as the Philippines, which is currently embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.
Australia closely monitored the Chinese vessels as they passed through the waters between Christmas Island and Indonesia.
The unprecedented and unannounced exercise has been perceived in the Australian media as a military move that will affect the region's geopolitical situation.
However, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop played down China's moves. She said that she would not raise the fleet's passage with her Chinese counterpart as Australia made similar voyages.
Expert on the law of the sea, Hasjim Djalal acknowledged that the issue could be perceived as political provocation by Australia.
'It is a political issue, not a matter of law anymore,' he said.
He said that foreign vessels could pass through Indonesian waters as long as they complied with 19 provisions in the Indonesian Archipelagic Sea Lanes regulation.
These stipulate that vessels passing through Indonesian waters should not stop or engage in military drills or maneuvers.
'Chinese vessels passing the Lombok Strait don't breach Indonesian sovereignty as long they comply with the rules of engagement,' he added.