“We want to mobilise our fishermen from the north coast and maybe in turn from other areas to operate by fishing there and other things,” Mahfud said.
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, said last week it was sending more warships to the area. Six Indonesian ships were there now and four more were on the way, said head of the Maritime Security Agency’s sea operations sub-directorate Imam Hidayat.
China claims much of the South China Sea, a global trade route with rich fishing grounds and energy reserves, as its own based on what it says its historic activity. But south-east Asian countries – and the United States and much of the world – say such claims have no legal basis.
Indonesian vessels often confront Chinese fishermen off the Natuna islands, but the presence of the Chinese coast-guard vessel has marked an escalation this year over which Indonesia summoned the Chinese ambassador.
Speaking in Beijing last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had sovereignty over the Spratly islands and their waters and that both China and Indonesia have “normal” fishing activities there. He did not specifically mention the Natuna islands, which are south-west of the Spratlys.
Last year, China engaged in a prolonged maritime stand-off in Vietnam’s extended economic zone and jangled nerves with its naval presence off the Philippines and Malaysia.
The last peak in tensions between Indonesia and China over the South China Sea was in 2016, when a Chinese coastguard vessel rammed a Chinese fishing boat to free it after it had been intercepted for illegal fishing by Indonesian authorities.