Indonesia has sent three navy warships to the Sulawesi Sea off the east coast of Borneo island, and has a fourth on the way, in an apparent show of strength after Malaysia awarded oil exploration rights in the area. 

Indonesia has lodged a protest with Malaysia after it struck an exploration deal with Anglo-Dutch giant Royal Dutch/Shell in the area known as Ambalat. Malaysia's state oil firm Petronas awarded two blocks in the Ambalat area to its own exploration arm and to Shell. 

Last year, Indonesia gave another oil giant, US-based Unocal Corp, the right to explore for hydrocarbons in the same area. 

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told a news conference on Thursday in Putrajaya, the administrative capital: "Malaysia will not do anything beyond what we consider as our rightful maritime area in line with the law of the sea. To me, there's no need to send ships.  

"Our bilateral ties are close and good. There's nothing to stop us from sitting down and talking to solve any problems." 

Patrolling Malaysian water

But separately, Malaysia's military chief General Zahidi Zainuddin said the navy would continue to patrol Malaysian waters to protect its petroleum industry. 

"Our bilateral ties are close and good. There's nothing to stop us from sitting down and talking to solve any problems"

Syed Hamid Albar,
Malaysian foreign minister

"It is our duty to ensure the safety and security of the oil exploration work being carried out by Petronas," the official Bernama news agency quoted him as saying. 

"But as far as possible, we'll not create a situation that can trigger clashes or shootouts," he said. 

In Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered armed forces chief General Endriartono Sutarto and the mines and energy minister to find a peaceful solution to the dispute. 

"The president asked us to seek the best solution to the overlapping claim," Sutarto said after Susilo had summoned senior officials to discuss the issue. 

"TNI (the military) will guard our sovereignty. We will try with diplomacy to avoid open conflict."