Jakarta: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday played down the possibility that Australia and Indonesia would stage joint patrols in the disputed South China Sea, a move that would have angered Beijing.
Australian and Indonesian officials first discussed the possibility of patrols last year, and President Joko Widodo reportedly said he wanted to raise the issue with Turnbull on a visit to Sydney in February.
Widodo told The Australian newspaper he saw patrols, potentially around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands at the southern edge of the hotly contested waters, as important as long as they did not raise tensions.
But during a visit to Jakarta on Tuesday, Turnbull played down the possibility of pushing ahead with a plan that could have upset one of Australia’s key trading partners.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea despite partial counter-claims from several other nations.
“We are not going to undertake any actions which would increase tensions in the South China Sea,” the prime minister told reporters during the trip to attend a summit of Indian Ocean states, when asked whether Widodo had raised the issue.
“Our commitment is to increase our cooperation with each other in terms of maritime security. So we talk about more collaboration, more coordination, but ... it has not been taken any further than that.”
Australia is opening the door to greater trade with China as ties between Canberra and key ally the United States fray in the era of President Donald Trump.
Trump reportedly ripped into Turnbull during a phone call over a refugee deal agreed with the administration of then-president Barack Obama.
Canberra said in January it was working to recast the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the US and opened the door for China to sign up after Trump ditched the trade pact.
Australia, like the US, has no claims of its own in the South China Sea, but insists that all shipping has a right to pass through what it regards as international waters.
Indonesia does not have disputes with China over reefs or islets in the sea, unlike several other Asian nations.
However Beijing’s expansive claims overlap Jakarta’s exclusive economic zone — waters that a state has sole right to exploit — around Indonesia’s Natunas islands, which are home to rich fishing grounds.
Chinese and Indonesian vessels repeatedly clashed in the area last year.