Analysts don’t expect progress on South China Sea code despite Indonesia’s push

China’s increasing activities in waters of ASEAN claimant states don’t inspire trust, they say.
Tria Dianti for BenarNews
2023.02.06
Jakarta
Analysts don’t expect progress on South China Sea code despite Indonesia’s push A Chinese coast guard ship patrols Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, Dec. 5, 2022.
Credit: AFP

Although ASEAN chair Indonesia appears to be pushing the bloc to accelerate talks with China for a code of conduct to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea, Beijing’s increasing activities in waters of Southeast Asian claimant states would stall an agreement, analysts warned.

At the end of a two-day meeting of the region’s top diplomats in Jakarta, Retno Marsudi, the foreign minister of Indonesia, said they discussed code of conduct (COC) negotiations and were committed to concluding them “as soon as possible.”

Towards that end, Retno said Indonesia would host several rounds of negotiations, with the first one to take place next month.

“We noted the need to find new strategies/approaches to speed up the process of the COC negotiation,” according to a statement issued on Saturday by Indonesia, the 2023 holder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ chair. The meeting was the first one hosted by Jakarta in that role.

However, the regional atmosphere isn’t conducive for such talks, and so it doesn’t seem likely that such negotiations will end swiftly and successfully, analysts said.

“Recent instances of Chinese coercion at sea against its Southeast Asian rivals, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, wouldn’t contribute to the building of trust,” Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told BenarNews.

“This only means that Beijing’s proposals and even overtures in the negotiations could be regarded with suspicion by these countries.”

Koh said he foresaw negotiations on the issue going on well beyond Indonesia’s one-year chairmanship of ASEAN.

The negotiations aim to establish a set of rules to govern the behavior of all parties in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways for shipping and a source for oil, natural gas and minerals.

These discussions between China and Southeast Asian claimant states have been going on for decades, but progress has been slow because of the complex and sensitive nature of disputes in the maritime region.

The South China Sea is claimed by ASEAN member-states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and there have been several incidents involving the deployment of military assets and fishing boats in the area.

While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

ASEAN and China signed the non-binding Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in November 2002 as a basis for a peaceful dispute resolution, but this was not implemented successfully.

It was the first political document signed by China and ASEAN to set up basic principles for negotiation and foster dialogue among claimants with a code of conduct as the ultimate target.

It is now 21 years later, and code of conduct negotiations will still not be completed any time soon, said another analyst, Siswanto Rusdi.

“We don’t know if China is changing, because it all depends on China,” Siswanto, executive director of the Jakarta-based National Maritime Institute, told BenarNews.

“They prefer to negotiate bilaterally, as opposed to using the ASEAN platform.”

On Saturday, some ASEAN foreign ministers expressed concerns about land reclamations and serious incidents in the South China Sea, saying they have “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

“We emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC, that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea,” they said, according to the statement from the ASEAN chair. 

The ministers also expressed concern about “cross-straits” tensions between China and Taiwan, and warned of open conflicts that could threaten regional peace and stability.

“ASEAN stands ready to play a constructive role in facilitating peaceful dialogue between all parties, including through utilizing ASEAN-led mechanisms to de-escalate tension, to safeguard peace, security and development in the area adjacent to our region,” it said.

China last month renewed its threats to invade Taiwan, news agencies reported. Beijing considers Taiwan a Chinese province.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service

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