Posts Tagged ‘Borneo’

Malaysia Arrests 7 Filipinos Suspected of Abu Sayyaf Links

September 21, 2017

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian police said Thursday they have arrested seven Filipinos believed to be members of the Abu Sayyaf militant group, as part of a crackdown on suspected terrorists in the country.

National police chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun said the seven men, aged between 22 and 38, worked as security guards with private companies in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas. He said a 22-year-old suspect had formerly engaged in battles against Filipino troops and was involved in kidnappings in southern Philippines.

Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for bombings, ransom kidnappings and beheadings, is supportive of the Islamic State terror group and blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the United States and the Philippines.

Mohamad Fuzi said in a statement that the men sneaked into Malaysia from eastern Sabah state on Borneo island, which is a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, in September 2015 and used false travel documents to fly to Kuala Lumpur.

He said their arrests came from information obtained following the Aug. 30 detention of eight suspected Abu Sayyaf members — two Filipinos and six Malaysian. Police have said one of the Filipinos was planning to attack the Aug. 30 closing ceremony of the Southeast Asian Games as well as an Independence Day parade the next day.

Fuzi said Thursday that police had detained 41 foreign terror suspects this year alone. Since 2013, police in Malaysia have detained more than 300 people believed to be linked to the Islamic State group.

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Malaysia Sets Boat Ablaze as It Turns Up Heat on Illegal Fishing

August 30, 2017

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia on Wednesday for the first time set fire to a foreign boat for fishing illegally in its waters as it turns up the heat on trespassing trawlers.

Porous maritime borders are a constant problem for Malaysia and its Southeast Asian neighbors, which struggle to keep foreign fishing vessels from operating illegally in their waters.

In early 2016, more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels were detected off the Borneo state of Sarawak, while in April Indonesia sank 81 mostly foreign boats caught illegally fishing in its waters.

The boat was set fire at sea off the coast of the northern state of Kelantan, the first time Malaysian authorities have resorted to such action, according to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA).

The MMEA did not specify the boat’s country of origin.

“This method shows how seriously the MMEA views incursions by foreign fishing boats in Malaysian waters,” the MMEA’s Deputy Director-General of Operations, Mohd Taha Ibrahim, said in a statement.

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Indonesia burns a foreign fishing boat. (Photo : Getty Images)

Mohd Taha said Malaysian authorities had so far sunk 285 foreign fishing vessels nationwide to create artificial reefs, but said the method has not made a “deep impact” on foreign fishermen operating illegally in Malaysian waters.

“The MMEA will continue to ramp up our surveillance and patrols to clamp down on crimes committed out at sea,” Mohd Taha said.

(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Indonesian military officer orders that forest burners be shot — authorities struggle to contain fires that cause choking smoke in the region

August 5, 2017

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An Indonesian ranger inspecting the peat forest fire at Meulaboh, Aceh province. PHOTO: AFP 

JAKARTA (REUTERS) – A military official in the Indonesian province of Jambi said on Saturday (Aug 5) that he has ordered that anyone who deliberately sets fire to forest areas be shot, as the authorities struggle to contain fires that cause choking smoke in the region.

Five Indonesian provinces have declared emergencies because of forest fires, according to Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB), with the number of hotspots steadily increasing in many areas over the past week.

The BNPB is working with many government branches, including the military, to contain the fires.

Indonesian media have reported that the authorities in the neighbouring province of South Sumatra, also on the island of Sumatra, had issued the same order.

“This is to stress a point to the people, who have been warned many, many times,” said Colonel Refrizal, commander of the forest fire task force in Jambi. “(This is) to show our firmness and seriousness.”

The order would be carried out “responsibly”, said Refrizal, who goes by one name.

BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said on Twitter the Jambi task force was working to extinguish a fire covering an area of 10 hectares (25 acres).

Nugroho also said the authorities had found one area in Jambi that had been “intentionally” burned by its owner.

The number of hotspots had increased to 239 by July 30, from 173 hotspots three days earlier, according to the BNPB.

The hotspots were seen mostly on Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo island, with some also on Sumatra and Java island.

The agency had previously warned that the threat of forest fires would escalate, with the dry season expected to peak in September.

Indonesia is regularly hit by forest fires, which can result in choking smoke blowing across to neighbouring countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

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An Indonesian woman and a child walk on a bamboo bridge as thick yellow haze shrouds Palangkaraya on Oct 22, 2015. AFP photo

The sprawling South-east Asian archipelago suffered some of its worst forest fires in 2015, hitting Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The World Bank, citing government data, said 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land in Indonesia burned between June and October 2015, causing US$16 billion (S$21.7 billion) of estimated economic damage.

Draining and conversion of peatland, often driven by palm oil plantations, contributed to the intensity of haze from the fires, the World Bank said.

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 (Contains links to several related articles)

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Carbon monoxide concentrations world-wide during the Indonesian burning season, 2015

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Indonesian Villagers Cut Down Forest in Orangutan Sanctuary

July 27, 2017

JAKARTA, Indonesia — A conservation group says nearly a fifth of the forest belonging to an orangutan sanctuary on the Indonesian part of Borneo has been occupied and damaged by people living near the area, threatening efforts to rehabilitate the critically endangered great apes for release into the wild.

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation spokesman Nico Hermanu says nearly 340 hectares (840 acres) of Samboja Lestari forest in East Kalimantan has been encroached upon. People suspected to be migrants from other parts of Indonesia have occupied the land, cut down trees and planted crops.

Their activities are near a “forest school” home to more than 20 orangutans that is a crucial part of their rehabilitation.

The foundation bought the land for the 1,850-hectare (4,571-acre) sanctuary from locals over several years and restored its forest.

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Indonesia re-positions military including Sukhoi jets in case Islamic State militants escape from the Philippines

June 18, 2017

Reuters

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Indonesia has deployed Sukhoi fighters at a base in northern Borneo to beef up security in case Islamist militants who overran a town in the Philippines try to flee southwards, an air force colonel told the Antara news agency.

The head of the air base in Tarakan, a town in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan on Borneo, said three Sukhoi jets that arrived on Friday would remain for a month in case radicals fighting the Philippine military in Marawi City sought to escape to Indonesia.

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“The militants might flee the Philippines and be forced to cross the border to Indonesia,” the Indonesian state news agency cited Colonel Didik Krisyanto as saying.

The Philippine military said on Friday that some of the Islamist militants who stormed Marawi City in the south of the country last month may have mingled with evacuees to slip away during the battle that has raged for almost four weeks.

The military says that up to 200 fighters, most of them from local insurgent groups that have pledged allegiance to Islamic State but also some foreign fighters, are holding out, using civilians as human shields and mosques as safe havens.

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The devastating collapse in security has alarmed neighbors such as Indonesia and Malaysia, and defense and army chiefs from the three countries are due to meet in Tarakan on Monday for a ceremony to mark the launch of patrols in the seas between the countries.

A port town, Tarakan is just south of the Malaysian side of Borneo and looks out across the sea to Mindanao in the southern Philippines, a sprawling island that has been plagued by insurgencies and banditry for decades.

Indonesian naval authorities had also asked local people including fishermen in border areas facing the Philippines to report any suspicious people, Antara reported.

A police mobile brigade corp had also been sent to northern areas on Sulawesi island to prevent militants from crossing the border, it said.

On Monday, Indonesia will inaugurate a maritime command center in Tarakan and also hold a ceremony on an Indonesian warship with Malaysian and Philippine officials to launch patrols.

Singapore and Brunei will be attending as observers.

The commander of Tarakan’s naval base, First Admiral Ferial Fachroni, told Reuters the other countries would also establish command centers to help in the sharing of information.

Fachroni said the army, navy and air forces would be involved in patrols but more discussions were needed to pin down whether they would be joint or coordinated.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Louise Heavens)

South China Sea: USS Carl Vinson Strike Group Departs for Korea; Chinese ships in “near continuous presence near Malaysia” — Latest South China Sea moves

April 10, 2017

BEIJING — A look at recent developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves:

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a weekly look at the latest developments in the South China Sea, home to several territorial conflicts that have raised tensions in the region.

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The Pentagon says A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike group is departing the South China Sea to provide a physical presence near the Korean Peninsula.

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USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and USS Sterett (DDG 104)

The U.S. Pacific Command directed the carrier group to sail north to the western Pacific after departing Singapore on Saturday, according to a Navy news release. The strike group includes the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, with support from several missile destroyers and missile cruisers.

Deployed from San Diego to the western Pacific since Jan. 5, the strike group has participated in numerous exercises with the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force and Republic of Korea Navy, various maritime security initiatives, and routine patrol operations in the South China Sea.

Its activities in the South China Sea were considered a message to Beijing about Washington’s determination to maintain its presence in the disputed waters. Beijing said it was well aware of the strike group’s activities and reiterated its stance that the U.S. presence in the area would only increase tensions at a time when claimants are working toward a long-awaited code of conduct aiming to reduce the potential for conflicts.

China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, also held exercises in the South China Sea from late 2016 to the beginning of this year, concluding them by sailing through the Taiwan Strait that divides China from the island it claims as its own territory. China is also believed to be close to launching its first entirely-home built aircraft carrier.

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Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying warships in the South China Sea. Reuters photo

DUTERTE ORDERS MILITARY TO OCCUPY AND FORTIFY ALL PHILIPPINE-HELD ISLANDS

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the military to occupy and fortify all Philippine-held islands in the South China Sea to assert the country’s claims in an apparent response to China’s moves to cement its control over its claims.

“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control,” Duterte said during a visit to a military camp in western Palawan province.

Duterte said he has ordered the armed forces to occupy and place Philippine flags on all islands, reefs and shoals controlled by the Philippines. Bunkers and other infrastructure for habitation must be built on nine or 10 islands, he said.

It was unclear how Duterte’s order can be executed. Some of the tiny reefs and outcrops would need expensive and logistically difficult reclamation work before structures could be built on them.

Duterte said he may visit one of the islands, Pag-asa, to raise the Philippine flag on Independence Day. He said money has been budgeted to repair the runway on Pag-asa, home to a small fishing community and Filipino troops.

Duterte has worked to mend ties with China that were strained under his predecessor over the territorial disputes. He paired that approach by attacking the U.S. for its policies in Asia and insulting former president Barack Obama for having criticized his bloody anti-drugs campaign.

However, his administration now appears to be avoiding frictions with the U.S. while taking a more wary approach to Beijing.

STUDY SAYS CHINESE COAST GUARD MAINTAINS NEAR-CONSTANT PRESENCE OFF BORNEO

Vessels from China’s coast guard are nearly constantly on station at the Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia’s Sarawak State on the island of Borneo, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The presence of the vessels “speaks to Beijing’s determination to establish administrative control throughout the nine-dash line,” the report said, referring to China’s roughly drawn outline of its South China Sea territorial claim.

The reefs lie between the Spratly chain, where China has been building islands out of reefs and equipping them with airstrips and other military installations, and James Shoal, which Beijing considers the southernmost extent of its territory. The James and Luconia shoals are underwater at high-tide and so cannot be claimed as territory.

The center recorded the presence of coast guard vessels at the shoal beginning from September 2013. Malaysia sent one of its coast guard ships to monitor the presence of the Chinese in January, but its vessels are outclassed by the much larger Chinese vessels. Despite operating within 4 nautical miles (7 kilometers) of each other, there have been no reported confrontations between the vessels, it said.

During a visit to Beijing by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to Beijing in November, the two countries said their navies would cooperate more in the South China Sea, in what was seen as a new attempt by Beijing to dilute U.S. influence in the area.

That included the purchase by Malaysia of four Chinese littoral patrol boats.

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INDONESIA DESTROYS FOREIGN VESSELS CAUGHT FISHING ILLEGALLY IN ITS WATERS.

Indonesian authorities destroyed 81 foreign ships at the start of April after seizing the vessels for fishing illegally in the country’s waters.

The world’s largest archipelago nation has taken a tough stance against illegal fishing since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo took office in 2014. Authorities have sunk 317 foreign vessels since then, including the most recent.

Most of the vessels were from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.

Indonesia was upholding its sovereignty and combating illegal fishing, said Susi Pudjiastuti, the minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries who witnessed the sinking of two ships in the port of Ambon in Maluku province.

“We hope Sino (the name of one of the ships) is the symbol of our victory against poaching after years of defeat, especially in eastern Indonesia,” Pudjiastuti said. She expressed hope that the action would deter poachers.

Pudjiastuti declared a fishing moratorium for foreign vessels immediately after taking office. “The state’s sovereignty has to be upheld.”

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Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.

Philippines: Abu Sayyaf Islamist Terror Group Commander Killed in Malaysia

December 12, 2016

From Al Jazeera

Malaysian PM lauds security forces as the Philippines reports death of Abraham Hamid, accused of kidnapping foreigners.

 
The Abu Sayyaf has been on a lucrative kidnapping spree in recent years [AP File Photo]

Malaysian security forces have killed a key member of a Philippine armed group in a shootout in waters off Sabah in Borneo, according to the Philippine military.

Abu Sayyaf commander Abraham Hamid had led the kidnapping of several foreigners from a tourist resort in the southern Philippines last year, two of whom were later beheaded.

“The death of Hamid is a big blow to the [Abu Sayyaf] as it neutralised one of the notorious bandits and will degrade their capability for spotting and kidnapping victims in the future,” said Major Filemon Tan, regional military spokesperson for the Philippines, on Saturday.

READ MORE: Inside Abu Sayyaf: Blood, drugs and conspiracies

Tan said Hamid had also been involved in the kidnapping of four Indonesian crewmen in April.

Two other fighters were killed alongside Hamid in the shootout with Malaysian police in Lahad Datu in eastern Sabah, he said.

Separately, the Philippine military said that at least three soldiers were killed in the southern Philippine island of Sulu, following a gun battle with Abu Sayyaf fighters.

Seventeen other soldiers were reported injured in the encounter, which lasted for almost two hours, in Patikul town on Saturday.

Kidnapping spree

In recent months, government forces have been carrying out major operations against the Abu Sayyaf, which beheaded two Canadian hostages after demands for millions of dollars were not met.

The armed group released two others, a Norwegian and Filipina, after ransoms were believed to be paid.

Philippine army vows to eradicate Abu Sayyaf group

There have been a spate of kidnappings of Malaysian and Indonesian sailors at sea in recent months that have been blamed on the Abu Sayyaf.

While Hamid and two fighters were killed, Sabah security forces have arrested two others, Tan said.

Abdul Rashid Harun, Sabah police chief, told AFP news agency the incident was the Malaysian authorities’ first direct confrontation with suspected kidnappers in the waters off eastern Sabah.

On his blog, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, praised his security forces and said his country would cooperate with the Philippines to fight the recurring kidnappings.

The Abu Sayyaf, a loose network of armed fighters based on remote islands in the southern Philippines, has defied more than a decade of military operations.

The group was formed in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, but has been on a lucrative kidnapping spree in recent years.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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Malaysia’s heavy reliance on China

November 16, 2016

By Shannon Teoh
Malaysia Bureau Chief
The Straits Times

Malaysia has talked up expectations that a new port in Malacca will be the region’s largest after it is completed in 2019. But while the government insists the new harbour is necessary to serve a growing economy, industry players are concerned about a glut as its existing ports are underutilised.

The five Peninsular Malaysia ports, including the main Port Klang, all have excess capacity in terms of container throughput and some are eyeing expansion.

The Melaka Gateway port is just one of several infrastructure plays that Prime Minister Najib Razak is rolling out. There are three MRT lines in the works, a highway that spans the length of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo, and extensions and upgrades to existing rail networks.

The Malacca port project, however, is yet another project in which China has taken up a major stake.

The Malaysian leader returned from Beijing earlier this month after inking a RM55 billion (S$18 billion) deal to link Port Klang to Kuantan – where a Chinese company also has a large stake in the port and industrial park – on the east coast and on to the north-eastern outpost of Kota Baru.

Even Bandar Malaysia, the much-vaunted new township that will be the Klang Valley’s new transport hub, is now being spearheaded by a Chinese-controlled consortium.

Foreign investments in multiple mega-projects are usually a good sign for the economy.

Still, Malaysia also has its fair share of white elephants, such as the underutilised National Stadium complex, the Formula One circuit, and the forgotten Biovalley project to boost agricultural efficiency.

To supporters of the new, heavy reliance on China, Beijing’s involvement could signal a flood of business opportunities from the world’s second-biggest economy heading to Malaysia, in a time of deep uncertainty over the trade leanings of United States President-elect Donald Trump.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline ‘Malaysia’s heavy reliance on China’.
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Malaysian PM Najib Razak Makes a Deal in China: Chinese, Malaysian Navies to Cooperate in South China Sea

November 1, 2016

NOV. 1, 2016, 9:09 A.M. EDT

BEIJING — China and Malaysia said their navies will cooperate more in the politically sensitive South China Sea in an agreement signed Tuesday during a visit by Malaysia’s leader, who is seeking stronger ties with Beijing as he tries to offset a financial scandal at home.

Prime Minister Najib Razak hopes to use his visit to Beijing this week to woo new investment and boost his image as he is shunned by Western leaders over the scandal, which has prompted a U.S. government investigation, analysts say.

He was given a red carpet welcome Tuesday by his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. After meeting at the Great Hall of the People, they oversaw the signing of agreements, including a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation.

“We have not touched upon the details of our cooperation. Mostly we are focusing on naval cooperation,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters afterward. As China and Malaysia are both South China Sea coastal nations, “we need to enhance our naval cooperation to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea and enhance our mutual trust,” he said.

Beijing asserts that virtually all of the South China Sea is Chinese territory, but an international tribunal ruling in July invalidated those sweeping claims. China has ignored that ruling. Six other Asian governments also claim part of the South China Sea, and some observers see it as a potential flashpoint that could spark conflict one day.

Najib is the second leader of a nation with rival territorial claims in the South China Sea to visit Beijing in two weeks. The first, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, played down his country’s dispute with China.

The international tribunal case was initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, and Duterte has sought to cast himself as far more conciliatory, an approach that appears to have paid off. While Chinese coast guard ships continue to guard a tiny, uninhabited shoal that China effectively seized in 2012, Filipino fishermen have been allowed to fish there for the first time in four years.

Malaysia claims a swath of the South China Sea north of Borneo, along with islands and reefs, but has been relatively understated amid the feuding among fellow claimants China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Last month, Najib said Malaysia will not compromise on its South China Sea claims, but wants them to be hashed out through dialogue and peaceful negotiations.

Liu said Najib agreed with the Chinese premier “to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue on a bilateral channel and through dialogue.” Beijing always prefers negotiating disputes on a one-to-one basis with the countries concerned, so it can bring more pressure to bear.

Liu said the two sides also agreed to enhance cooperation in infrastructure, agriculture, trade, investment and law enforcement, and will work together to build an east coast railway link in Malaysia and an oil and gas pipeline in Sabah. All this cooperation “will bring our relations to a new high,” Liu said.

Najib is to meet President Xi Jinping on Thursday.

Najib has been implicated in a U.S. government investigation into massive fraud at a Malaysian investment fund he founded known by the initials 1MDB. The U.S. Department of Justice said in a lawsuit seeking to seize assets in the U.S. that at least $3.5 billion was stolen from the fund and diverted through a web of shell companies and bank accounts in Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and the United States.

Malaysia’s attorney general has defended Najib, even as his popularity at home has plummeted in recent months.

James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at Australia’s University of Tasmania, said Najib wants to attract more Chinese money to make up for a drop in foreign direct investment from Western countries spooked by the scandal. He said Najib also wants to show that “there are still powerful countries around the world that are still willing to give him the five-star or red carpet treatment.”

“He’s showing the Malaysian domestic audience that a new upcoming power like China is still willing to host him, because it is quite obvious that he can’t get the same treatment in Western capitals anymore,” Chin said.

While Najib has more riding on the visit, the Chinese government is also eager to increase its clout with Malaysia as it looks to develop its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. Under Xi’s signature foreign economic expansion strategy, China aims to strengthen land and sea links and bilateral cooperation with the rest of Asia, Africa and Europe. One part of that is a planned high-speed railway from Singapore to the southwest of China which will pass through Malaysia.

“China for its part wants to be closer to Malaysia in economic and political terms because it’s trying to draw Malaysia into its sphere of influence,” Chin said.

Relatives of Chinese passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing in 2014 en route to Beijing, are clamoring to meet with Najib during his visit. About 10 relatives went to the Foreign Ministry and later to the Malaysian Embassy on Tuesday.

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Leader of Malaysia, Miffed at U.S., Visits China With a Deal in Mind

BEIJING — Malaysia’s prime minister, miffed by a Justice Department investigation into his nation’s sovereign wealth fund, arrived in Beijing on Monday ready to buy Chinese military hardware, a deal that will rattle his relationship with the United States.

The presence of a Malaysian leader here would normally not get much attention. But China is seizing on another chance to best Washington in the Southeast Asian battleground after a successful visit by the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who excoriated the United States during his visit here two weeks ago.

As the Obama administration is winding down, the Chinese leadership is taking advantage of the moment by trying to chip away at the president’s signature policy of the pivot to Asia, offering attractive military and economic deals to America’s friends in Southeast Asia, particularly to those countries that border the contested South China Sea.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/world/asia/malaysia-china.html

Indonesia Demonstrates Readiness To Defend South China Sea Assets

October 6, 2016

Military exercises are around country’s Natuna Islands, over waters where run-ins with Chinese fishing boats are on the rise

Geopolitical experts said the air-force exercises were intended to send a message to China as well as citizens in Indonesia. Shown, from left, military chief Gatot Nurmantyo, Indonesia President Joko Widodo and air-force commander Agus Supriatna during the military exercises Thursday.
Geopolitical experts said the air-force exercises were intended to send a message to China as well as citizens in Indonesia. Shown, from left, military chief Gatot Nurmantyo, Indonesia President Joko Widodo and air-force commander Agus Supriatna during the military exercises Thursday. PHOTO: BEAWIHARTA/REUTERS

JAKARTA, Indonesia—Indonesia made a show of military force in the South China Sea on Thursday, flying its air force across a resource-rich area where the country has been increasingly clashing with Chinese fishing boats.

The exercises, over waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands between Singapore and Borneo, comprised more than 2,000 air-force personnel and almost the entire air-force fleet, with dozens of aircraft including F-16s, Sukhois, Hercules and various choppers. The military described the maneuvers as designed to “neutralize opposing air forces” and maintain Indonesia’s sovereignty.

Geopolitical experts described the showing as a message to both China, which claims fishing rights to waters around the Natunas as part of its sweeping claims to almost all of the South China Sea, and citizens in Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago nation where President Joko Widodo has been trying to build up military and border defenses with limited economic resources.

A Sukhoi fighter jet is seen during a military exercise at Ranai military airbase in Natuna Island, Riau Islands province, Indonesia October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Beawiharta

Mr. Widodo traveled to the Natunas for the second time in less than four months to watch the drills and check infrastructure development in the area, including an expanded airport and cold-storage facilities to draw more Indonesian fishing boats to the area. Those measures and a new drive to develop the vast, untapped petroleum resources around the Natunas are meant to increase Indonesia’s hold on the region.

China doesn’t dispute Indonesia’s claim to the Natuna archipelago, which is home to nearly 100,000 Indonesians, but says it has the right to fish in waters near the islands. Indonesia, however, claims rights to an exclusive, United Nations-defined economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from the islands.

Indonesia has tried for years to avoid being dragged into territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where countries including China, Vietnam and the Philippines all have claims. But in June, Indonesia’s military said the number of Chinese fishing vessels had risen around the Natunas this year and that fishing was an excuse for China to lay claim to the area. China has argued that the two countries have overlapping claims over maritime interests in some waters of the South China Sea.

“The exercise has one aim and two audiences,” said Ian Storey, Southeast Asia expert at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The aim is to demonstrate that Indonesia’s armed forces stand ready to defend the country’s natural resources around the Natunas. The two audiences are the Indonesian people and the Chinese government.”

Write to Ben Otto at ben.otto@wsj.com

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Reuters

Thu Oct 6, 2016 | 9:31am EDT

By Eveline Danubrata | RANAI, INDONESIA

Indonesian warplanes on Thursday staged a large-scale exercise on the edge of South China Sea territory claimed by Beijing, a show of force that adds to regional uncertainty sparked by the Philippines’ sudden tilt away from the United States.

President Joko Widodo watched from Ranai, capital of the Natuna Islands archipelago, with hundreds of military officials as about 70 jets carried out manoeuvres that included a dog fight and dropping bombs on targets off the coast.

“The president has a policy that all the outer islands that are strategic will be strengthened, be it air, maritime or land,” Gatot Nurmantyo, commander of the Indonesian National Armed Forces, told reporters.

“Our country needs to have an umbrella. From corner to corner, we have to safeguard it.”

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told reporters in Ranai that the exercise was “routine”, but it was also Indonesia’s biggest so far and follows a move by Widodo in June to hold a cabinet meeting on board a warship off the Natuna islands.

Indonesian officials described Widodo’s visit at that time as a strong message to Beijing following a spate of face-offs between Indonesia’s navy and Chinese fishing boats in the gas-rich southern end of the South China Sea.

China, while not disputing Indonesia’s claims to the Natuna islands, has raised Indonesian anger by saying the two countries had “overlapping claims” to waters close to them, an area Indonesia calls the Natuna Sea.

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.

While Indonesia is not part of the dispute over the South China Sea, it objects to China’s inclusion of waters around the Natuna Islands within its ‘nine-dash line’, a demarcation line used by China to show its claims there.

Jakarta has traditionally taken a neutral position on the South China Sea itself, 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.

“The overall strength of ASEAN depends in great part on the willingness of Indonesia to play that role of diplomatic broker … and that’s where I think we’re seeing some of this wobbliness,” said Euan Graham, director of International Security at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think-tank.

“A VERY FLUID SITUATION”

Diplomats and analysts say that, even before the Indonesian military exercise, recent events had thrown the status quo around the South China Sea into doubt, with some countries buttressing long-held positions and others moving toward Beijing.

An open war-of-words between Singapore and China, and Vietnam letting two U.S. warships visit its highly-strategic naval base at Cam Ranh Bay this week, contrasted with more pro-Beijing moves taken by the Philippines and Malaysia.

“We’re facing a very fluid situation right now,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.

“We can see some countries taking actions that effectively reveal their consistent positions and others are being much more deferential to China, rolling over and waiting for a tummy rub from Beijing.”

Storey and other analysts said the hostility toward the United States from new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and his questioning of the decades-old security alliance between Manila and Washington, would fuel uncertainty long-term.

The potential for a much closer security relationship between China and Russia, which recently staged their first joint exercises in the South China Sea, was another driver.

“Make no mistake, if Duterte follows through on his rhetoric it has the potential to shift the overall dynamics of not just the South China Sea issue, but broader strategic assumptions across Southeast Asia,” he said.

Zhang Baohui, a mainland security expert at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said China may be swift to exploit a tilt away from Washington by Duterte.

“Some Chinese elites are seeing this as a God-sent gift to China,” Zhang said. “This represents a huge potential shift.”

(Additional reporting by Greg Torode in HONG KONG and Lincoln Feast in SYDNEY; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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