SYDNEY (Reuters) – Indonesia President Joko Widodo will discuss the prospect of joint patrols with Australia in the South China Sea when he meets his counterpart Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the weekend.
Widodo told The Australian newspaper he would like to see joint patrols with Australia, but only if did not further inflame tensions with China.
“If there is no tension I think it’s very important to have the patrols together. We will discuss this with PM Turnbull,” said Widodo.
Indonesia has traditionally taken a neutral position on the South China Sea, acting as a buffer between China and fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that have the most at stake, the Philippines and Vietnam.
But after China angered Indonesia by saying the two countries had “overlapping claims” to waters close to Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, Jakarta staged large-scale exercise on the edge of South China Sea in October.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.
Australia – which says it takes no sides on South China Sea disputes but has supported U.S.-led freedom of navigation activities in the region – has been seeking to repair ties with Indonesia after their most recent spat.
Indonesia suspended military cooperation with Australia in January after “insulting” teaching materials were found at an Australian base.
While Australia’s army chief apologized to Indonesia in February, military cooperation remains suspended.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast)