By: Our Correspondent

Indonesian President Joko Widodo roiled the waves this week over the contentious issue of who owns what in the South China Sea, telling the Asahi Shimbun newspaper on the eve of state visits to both Japan and China that China has no legal claim to its “nine-dashed line” encompassing 90 percent of the sea. He then appeared to back off slightly, saying that Jakarta won’t side with any country in the continuing dispute.

“The ‘nine-dashed line’ that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law,” said Joko.

The Tokyo trip was followed by a state visit to China and the interview almost certainly rankled Beijing. His remarks also took some government officials in Jakarta off guard. “That is our president,” laughed one advisor. “He speaks his mind.”

Joko later offered Indonesia’s services to play peacemaker in the Sea over the maze of conflicting claims by the littoral nations, saying in Tokyo, “When it is needed, we are ready to become a good mediator.”

Hardly a secret

Regardless of whether the comment about the legality of China’s vast claims was scripted, the sentiment is widespread in official circles in Jakarta, though not shared by most of the foreign ministry.

In stating it so bluntly, Joko showed his government’s determination to enunciate Indonesia’s core interests; it also goes hand in hand with his policy to transform Indonesia into a regional maritime power. Behind that drive is the (usually unspoken) concern about China’s belligerence.

Although Jakarta has officially declared that it is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, which have ensnared Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s nine-dash line runs through waters in the Natuna region which lie inside Indonesia’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Military leaders in Jakarta in recent years have grown increasingly nervous about China’s encroachment in the Sea.

Indonesia has already demonstrated its determination to police its own waters and shocked its neighbors by capturing at least 150 small fishing vessels since Joko took office. Twenty-two of them are Chinese. Although it hasn’t sunk the Chinese vessels, the Indonesian navy has blown up and sunk vessels from Thailand, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.  A handful of Chinese vessels remain impounded.

China was clearly irritated by Jokowi’s remarks in Japan, which has had its own territorial dispute for several years with China over the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The Indonesian president met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 23, the respective defense ministers for the two countries signed a mutual defense pact to forge closer security ties.

As an indication of China’s pique, when Jokowi landed in Beijing, he was reportedly met at the airport by a relatively low-ranking vice minister of foreign affairs, according to an official in Jakarta. He met later with President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People to deal with bilateral issues and to sign several agreements on disaster management, finance, infrastructure and other matters.