The prospect that Australia and Indonesia would jointly patrol the South China Sea near Natuna Islands has been slapped down by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who denied reports the Indonesian President had ever suggested it.
During a visit to Jakarta for a regional summit, Ms Bishop was adamant that Joko Widodo had never meant that Australian Navy boats would take to Indonesia’s northern-most waters.
“But if there is no tension, I think it is very important to have the patrols together,” The Australian newspaper had quoted Mr Widodo as saying before his visit to Sydney just over a week ago.
The denial that the joint exercises were being contemplated came just hours before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull landed in the Indonesian capital to attend the Indian Ocean Rim Association Summit.
Maritime security and countering radical extremism have been dominating discussions at the summit, which for the first time in 20 years will be held at a leaders’ level today.
On the sidelines of the official event, Indonesia’s Security Minister Wiranto said of the more than 500 Indonesians who had travelled to join Islamic State militants in Syria, 53 foreign fighters had returned.
He said Indonesia was trying to use them as “agents” to garner information about Islamic State activities.
Bishop to visit Papua towards end of year
One of Mr Turnbull’s priorities during his visit to the Indonesian capital will be securing a free trade agreement with Indonesia.
Both countries say they hope a deal can be done before the year is out, but few details have been made public about what any agreement will ultimately include, and who would be the winners or losers.
China’s so-called nine-dash line stretches into waters near Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands, with tension rising between Beijing and Jakarta last year.
After a meeting with Ms Bishop, Indonesia’s coordinating Minister for Maritime affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan said he did not know if joint patrols were necessary.
“But for sure for economic activities we can do a lot,” he said, referring to the area while also indicating that Australia could play a role in boosting Natuna Islands’ tourism.
He also revealed Ms Bishop would visit Papua towards the end of the year.
“We don’t mind, we love to see some other countries visit Papua to have a look what is really going on,” he said.