JAKARTA/TOKYO - Indonesian President Joko Widodo says one of China's main claims to the majority of the South China Sea has no legal basis in international law, but Jakarta wants to remain an "honest broker" in one of Asia's most thorny territorial disputes.
Mr Joko's comments in an interview with a major Japanese newspaper come as he visits Japan and China this week, and is the first time he has taken a position on the issue since coming to power in October.
China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan lay claim to parts of the sea, where about US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) of ship-borne trade passes every year.
The territorial dispute is seen as one of Asia's hot spots.
"We need peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. It is important to have political and security stability to build up our economic growth," Mr Joko was quoted in an interview with the Yomiuri newspaper published yesterday.
"So we support the Code of Conduct (of the South China Sea) and also dialogue between China and Japan, China and ASEAN."
But in a Japanese version of the interview published on Sunday, he rejected one of Beijing's main claims to the South China Sea. "The 'nine-dashed line' that China says marks its maritime border has no basis in any international law," said Mr Joko.
Maritime lawyers note that Beijing routinely outlines the scope of its claims with reference to the nine-dashed line, which takes in about 90 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea on Chinese maps.
Mr Joko was not speaking on China's overall claim on the South China Sea, but only its nine-dash dotted line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of South-east Asia, his foreign policy adviser Rizal Sukma told Reuters yesterday.
"In 2009, Indonesia sent its official stance on the issue to the United Nations commission on the delimitation of the continental shelf, stating that the nine-dotted line has no basis in international law," he said. "So, nothing changes."
China's Foreign Ministry appeared to downplay the remarks, repeating its standard line about Chinese sovereignty and that the dispute needs sorting out between the countries directly involved.
"The core of the South China Sea dispute is because of some countries' illegal occupation of several islands in the South China Sea and their adjacent waters has caused overlapping maritime claims," spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing.