Indonesia affirms stance on South China Sea while cooperating with China in vaccine production

Cooperation with China to secure COVID-19 vaccines will not influence Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea (Bien Dong Sea), said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi.
October 08, 2020 | 07:49
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An Indonesian official points at the location of North Natuna Sea on a map of Indonesia during talk with reporters on Jul 14, 2017. (File photo: Reuters/Beawiharta)

Indonesia is currently cooperating with China to secure COVID-19 vaccines for its citizens. However, the initiative will not influence Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea (Bien Dong Sea), said Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi on October 6.

Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea but it has on more than one occasion locked horns with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands in the southern part of the disputed waters. Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel was spotted in the Natuna waters, CNA said.

When asked if the ongoing vaccine development would affect Indonesia's position on the disputed waters, she replied: “I can answer firmly, as firmly as possible. No. Those are two different things and when we work together, it is not cooperation that is unequal which only benefits one party, in this case Indonesia."

But Chinese companies and China as a country, also enjoy the fruits or benefits of this cooperation. It’s a two-way benefit,” she told CNA in an exclusive interview.

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Indonesia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi. (Photo: Handout/Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

On multiple occasions this year, Mdm Marsudi has reiterated that Indonesia is not a party to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and that the nine-dash line map which China uses as a basis for its claims in the waters lacks an international legal basis.

Southeast Asia’s biggest economy is currently participating in a late-stage human trial of China’s Sinovac Biotech COVID-19 vaccine candidate, one of the few candidates in the world to have entered phase 3 clinical trials.

It is also working together with another Chinese company, Sinopharm, to ensure that 260 million Indonesians can be vaccinated.

Signs of tensions in Bien Dong Sea

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Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

There have been recent signs of tensions in the South China Sea amid the COVID-19 situation.

Earlier this year, the US Navy said a guided-missile destroyer had sailed through waters near the Paracel islands, challenging China's claim to the area.

Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel entered Indonesia's 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off the northern Natuna islands.

The Indonesian government issued a formal protest to Chinese ambassador Xiao Qian over the latest intrusion, in which the Indonesian Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) said the Chinese used the specific term “nine-dash line” in radio messages with an Indonesian patrol vessel.

While China recognizes Indonesian sovereignty over its northernmost Natuna archipelago, it has always refused to provide the exact coordinates of the nine-dash line, a broad tongue-shaped swathe of the South China Sea extending into the North Natuna Sea, according to Asia Times.

The latest incident suggests that Jakarta may sooner or later have to confront the fact that China is now seeking to lay down markers in claiming traditional fishing rights inside Indonesian waters in a clear breach of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In many locations, the CCG/People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy are trying to normalize the presence of their ships and then eventually move into enforcing their fishing rights and the nine-dash line,” says one naval analyst who requested anonymity.

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Chinese coast guard vessel 5204 allegedly leaving Indonesia's exclusive economic zone in the North Natuna Sea, Sept. 14, 2020. [Courtesy of Bakamla – Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency]

Responding to the latest situation in the Natuna waters, Mdm Marsudi said that a vessel from another country can be in Indonesia’s EEZ if it is only passing by, but not if it is there to exercise territorial claim.

If the purpose is to exercise its claim with the nine-dash line, of course, it cannot be justified. But after we communicated, through diplomatic channels, the vessel then moved,” said Indonesia's top diplomat.

She expects incidents involving foreign vessels' entry to Indonesia’s EEZ to continue.

"I believe this will not be the last time that it happens. Maybe it will happen again. And we will continue to communicate, we will continue to uphold our principles as we said earlier,” she told CNA.

Last January, it was also one of three Chinese cutters which intruded 100 kilometers into Indonesian waters in a large-scale incursion that caused Indonesia to scramble F-16 jets from Pekanbaru, southern Sumatra, and dispatch eight naval vessels to the scene.

Since then, the cutter is believed to have made several other intrusions after switching off its automatic identification system (AIS) for up to 36 hours as it ventured close to the maritime border, which lies about 70 kilometers south of Vanguard Bank.

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An Indonesian officer on guard in front of a naval vessel in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Last December, Chinese fishing boats and guards also entered the Natuna waters and as a result, Mdm Marsudi summoned the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta.

Indonesia then deployed warships and fighter jets to Natuna. After several days of stand-off and President Joko Widodo's visit to the area, the Chinese vessels left the area.

Unlike Malaysia and the Philippines, both claimants to the Spratly islands, Indonesia has taken a robust approach to protecting its maritime boundary with four Navy frigates and two Bakamla and Fisheries Ministry vessels patrolling the country’s northern approaches.

The Pekanbaru-based F-16s now conduct regular patrols over the Natunas. So do Boeing 737 and CN-235 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, flying out of Makassar in South Sulawesi, and a squadron of Israeli-made drones based in West Kalimantan, Asia Times reported.

Indonesia develops its own vaccine while seeking partners

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Indonesia will test Sinovac Biotech's COVID-19 vaccine candidate on 1,620 people over a period of six months. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

Elaborating on Indonesia's vaccine diplomacy, Mdm Marsudi said at the beginning of the pandemic, Indonesia had approached countries believed to have the capacity to fulfill its vaccine needs.

“So we talked to everybody, every country. There were those who responded quickly, and some responded a little later. To those who responded quickly, and to those who responded later, we got back to all.

Well, it just so happens that the one who responded quickly was Sinovac. And the cooperation with Sinovac also involves cooperation for technology transfer, for manufacturing, and others,” she told CNA.

She said that after securing a partnership with Sinovac, Indonesia did not stop its search for partners.

Apart from working together with China, Indonesia is also developing its own vaccine while working together with the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of Korea. It is also in talks with two parties in the United Kingdom regarding vaccine cooperation, she said.

"Therefore, I can confirm that it is wrong if there is a perception that Indonesia only goes to China. No, we are trying to cooperate with all countries because apart from the many sources, there are many needs.

And in Indonesian politics, it is clear that we are free and active and will not side with one bloc against the other. It's very clear. And this is manifested in all of our policies."/.

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