Late Tuesday, Jan. 7, the Indonesian air force deployed four fighter jets into the South China Sea in a confrontation with the Chinese regime after Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, protested a violation of its exclusive economic zone, The Sidney Morning Herald reported.
The confrontation began in mid-December when a Chinese coast guard ship, which accompanied Chinese fishing boats, entered the coastal waters of northern Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, prompting Jakarta to summon the Beijing ambassador.
The head of Indonesia’s Maritime Safety Agency said the country would defend its waters off the Natuna Islands, an archipelago at the southern end of the disputed sea, after more than 60 Chinese ships breached its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) last month.
In the wake of this incident, Indonesia is increasing patrols—by air and by sea—on its maritime territory in the South China Sea.
The conflict has strained Indonesia’s generally friendly relationship with China, its largest trading partner and a major investor.
President Joko Widodo left for Natuna on Wednesday morning to meet with local fishermen who had previously mobilized to help the country’s navy.
“The four F-16s left today,” Air Commander Ronny Irianto Moningka, head of Roesmin Nurjadin Air Base, told reporters in Riau province, which includes the Natuna regency.
“We are only safeguarding our territory,” the official added, without determining how long the patrol will last, Reuters reported.
Air force spokesman Fajar Adriyanto said four F-16s were flying over the islands, but also minimized fears of any confrontation with Beijing.
“They are doing standard patrols to protect our sovereign area. They just happen to be patrolling Natuna,” Adriyanto said. “We don’t have the order to start a war with China,” he said.
The South China Sea is a global trade route with rich fishing grounds and energy reserves. The Chinese regime claims that most of it is based on what it says is its historical activity. But Southeast Asian countries, supported by the United States and much of the rest of the world, disagree, claiming that such claims have no legal basis.
Indonesia has not traditionally been among the countries in the region involved in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, the strategic waterway through which approximately $5 trillion in trade passes annually.
China, through its so-called Nine-Dash Line, claims almost all of the sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan have their own claims overlapping with parts of those waters.
In a 2016 ruling on a case brought by the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said there was no legal basis for Beijing’s maritime claims. However, the Chinese regime rejected the ruling and launched a wave of construction in the territories it has taken over at sea.
China’s Nine-Dash line overlaps with Indonesia’s EEZ in waters off Natuna, U.S.-based experts in the South China Sea told BenarNews.
Evan Laksmana, senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Natuna’s waters had been one of Indonesia’s potential hotspots since the 1990s because of its location in the South China Sea.
“If the military anticipated some form of conflict spread, of regional countries fighting each other … Natuna is among the closest or most likely scenarios,” Evan told BenarNews.