In this file photo dated Sept 11, 2021, artists perform at the pavilion of Indonesia at the 18th China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
Indonesia’s ASEAN leadership is expected to accelerate negotiations of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that will benefit all parties in the disputes, experts say.
As the current rotating chairperson of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia has vowed to conclude negotiations on the COC. Officials from China and member countries of ASEAN met from March 8 to 10 in Jakarta to discuss implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
China and some ASEAN member states have competing claims over the South China Sea. The issue has been unresolved for years, pushing the need to draft and implement a COC to resolve tensions over the waters found resource-rich in late last century
Sidharto Suryodipuro, director-general for ASEAN cooperation at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, said that talks have been progressing and that their goal is to produce a COC that is “effective, substantive and actionable”, Singapore-based Straits Times reported.
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China and some ASEAN member states have competing claims over the South China Sea. The issue has been unresolved for years, pushing the need to draft and implement a COC to resolve tensions over the waters found resource-rich in late last century.
Mustafa Izzuddin, visiting professor of international relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia, is optimistic that Southeast Asia’s biggest economy will serve as a “diplomatic pacesetter” in the negotiations for the COC.
“It would require Indonesia to provide strong statesmanship and imaginative leadership to mediate between China and the claimant states in Southeast Asia to get the Code of Conduct finalized and implemented effectively thereafter,” Mustafa said.
He said there is no better time than now, with Indonesia as ASEAN’s chair, to conclude talks on the COC. Mustafa also noted the “ASEAN way” – where issues are resolved through consultation and consensus. He said that instead of imposing its own will on other member countries, Indonesia will consider regional interest when providing the “consultative leadership” necessary to deal with crucial issues like the COC.
Veronika Saraswati, convenor of the China Studies Research Unit at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Indonesia will uphold its foreign policy, which is anchored on the principle of “bebas dan aktif” (independent and active).
The principle states that Indonesia is independent and will therefore not side with any world power. At the same time, Indonesia is not a passive nation and will actively contribute to the settlement of pressing global issues.
“Indonesia is expected to play a more active role concerning the South China Sea issue” because of the principle, Saraswati said
Bart Edes, distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said Indonesia has assumed ASEAN chairmanship at “a particularly challenging time”, alluding to the global economic slowdown and increasing geopolitical tensions. Despite this he is confident that Indonesian President Joko Widodo is ready for such a challenge given Indonesia’s successful presidency of the Group of 20 in 2022.
Indonesia will make ASEAN a “stable anchor in a global sea of turbulence, while working to strengthen the organization's institutional capacities,” Edes said. “I would expect that over the next several months we will hear regular messaging out of Jakarta on the need for ASEAN to pursue inclusive, sustainable economic growth.”
After years of negotiations, China and ASEAN have finally agreed on a single draft for the COC, negotiating text at a 2018 ASEAN ministerial meeting in Singapore. In 2019, the two sides have concluded the first reading of the draft. The pandemic, however, has stalled further consultation and dialogue on the COC.
After Indonesia formally assumed ASEAN’s chairmanship in January 2023, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Indonesia plans to intensify talks to finalize a COC that is “substantive, effective and actionable”.
Edes said the differing positions and motivations of the several parties involved might make it difficult to produce a COC.
“Reaching agreement on geographic coverage, dispute settlement arrangements, and terms under which natural resources would be exploited and shared remains a tall order,” he said.
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However, Edes said the meeting between Marsudi and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang in February “has provided some momentum for more intense negotiations”.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday China and ASEAN countries continued to advance the consultation on the text of the COC and had an in-depth exchange of views on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
Moreover, "they agreed to carry out multiple practical cooperation projects in such fields as marine scientific research, environmental protection and search and rescue operation at sea, step up dialogue and communication, deepen mutually beneficial cooperation and jointly uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea," Wang said.
Leonardhus Jegho in Jakarta and Xinhua contributed to this story.