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Jakarta Post

Not about sovereignty: Luhut explains Natuna spat with China

  • Dian Septiari
    Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, January 7, 2020   /   02:34 pm
Not about sovereignty: Luhut explains Natuna spat with China Fabulous five: Centre for Strategic and International Studies cofounder Jusuf Wanandi (left) smiles on stage while standing next to (from second left) Chinese Ambassador to Indonesia Xiao Qian, Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Pandjaitan, former Chinese ambassador to Indonesia Lan Lijun and Indonesian Ambassador to China Djauhari Oratmangun during the opening of a seminar on the fifth anniversary of the Indonesia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in Jakarta on Tuesday. (The Jakarta Post/Seto Wardhana)

Indonesia’s chief maritime affairs minister has cautioned against making assumptions that the nation’s sovereignty is at stake as tensions with China in the Natuna Islands chain continue to simmer.

Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investments Minister Luhut Pandjaitan has asked the public not to overestimate the gravity of the spat with China, saying it was a matter of exercising exclusive economic rights in the Indonesian-controlled waters around the Riau Islands province.

“We shouldn’t be too quick to say that we are selling out our sovereignty [to China],” Luhut told reporters in Jakarta on Monday evening. “Let me be clear that the EEZ [exclusive economic zone] has to do with the economy and not sovereignty – these are two very different beasts.”

Over the past week, Jakarta and Beijing have been embroiled in a diplomatic tug-of-war over the latter’s claim to parts of Indonesia’s EEZ, after the Maritime Security Agency (Bakamla) reported multiple counts of Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels operating there illegally.

China claims its ships were performing “routine” activities to protect its rights and interests in “relevant waters”, but Jakarta insists these claims are “unilateral, have no legal basis and have never been recognized by” the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Unlike territorial waters and their link to sovereignty, an EEZ covers international waters 200 nautical miles out from a nation's coastline and confers the coastal state exclusive rights to exploit marine resources in the designated area, according to UNCLOS.

China claims most of the South China Sea despite the great distance from its coastline, but a 2016 international tribunal invalidated the sweeping claims that are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea territorial disputes and has rejected Chinese efforts to draw it to the negotiation table. In 2017, Jakarta renamed this segment of its EEZ the North Natuna Sea, angering Beijing.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo reiterated Indonesia’s position that its territorial integrity was “nonnegotiable”, although Luhut struck a softer tone as the state kept its line of communications with China open.

“They [China] have reduced the number of fishermen there and that is something worth appreciating – they have no desire to fight over this. But of course there are infractions here and there,” said Jokowi’s pointman on Chinese trade and investments.

However, Luhut insisted there is no intention to negotiate the nation’s borders. (tjs)