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Indonesia pushes for Southeast Asian patrols of disputed waters

By Fergus Jensen
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Indonesia's Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hold bilateral talks with Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne in Sydney

Indonesia's Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hold bilateral talks with Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne in Sydney, Australia, March 16, 2018. William West/Pool via REUTERS

By Fergus Jensen

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Indonesia has lobbied Southeast Asian countries to carry out maritime patrols in the disputed South China Sea, claimed in most part by China, to improve security, Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said on Friday.

Indonesia says it's a non-claimant state in the South China Sea dispute but has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands and expanded its military presence there, and also renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone, asserting its own maritime claim.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne held talks with their Indonesian counterparts Retno Marsudi and Ryacudu in Sydney, ahead of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

Australia is hosting the meeting, despite not being a member of the 10-nation bloc, as it seeks to tighten political and trade ties in the region amid China's rising influence.

"For the South China Sea, I went around to friends - ASEAN defense ministers - so that each country that faces the South China Sea patrols up to 200 nautical miles, around 230 kilometers," Ryacudu told reporters at a joint press conference.

Indonesia is focusing on three areas, notably the Sulu Sea, the Malacca Strait and the seas around the coast of Thailand, Ryacudu said, referring to existing cooperation with Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.

"If we look at the (borders) from Vietnam down to Indonesia and to the Philippines, we can see we have secured almost half of the South China Sea (in areas) we are already patrolling."

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important trade route and which is believed to contain large quantities of oil and natural gas, and has been building artificial islands on reefs, some with ports and air strips, developments that have irked ASEAN members.

China has also been rapidly increasingly its military deployment in the South China Sea and its air force said last month that Chinese Su-35 fighter jets took part in a combat patrol over the disputed waterway.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, all of which are members of ASEAN, and Taiwan also have claims in the sea.

China's foreign minister said last week that China's resolve to protect peace and stability in the South China Sea was unshakeable, and that outside forces were attempting to muddy the waters.

China has been angered in the past by freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea by the United States which it sees as provocative.

Australia - which says it takes no sides on South China Sea disputes but has supported U.S.-led freedom of navigation activities - has previously said it had no plans to take part in joint patrols.

Officially, the ASEAN summit will focus on fostering closer economic ties among the members of ASEAN and Australia, and countering the threat of Islamist militants returning to the region from the Middle East.

Australian Foreign Minister Bishop also said Australia would "very seriously" consider any formal invitation to join the grouping, a move advocated by Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

(Reporting by Fergus Jensen; Editing by Nick Macfie)