Indonesian Pitch for Disputed Seas

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Indonesian Pitch for Disputed Seas

New developments show Jakarta working to break the impasse over the South China Sea.

Indonesia is upping the diplomatic ante: by putting the Code of Conduct for dispute resolution in the South China Seas back on the agenda at the United Nations in New York, the country’s leaders have raised the pressure on their regional neighbors while hoping to head off any further embarrassment at the next meeting of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

ASEAN foreign ministers failed to reach consensus at a meeting in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in June about the appropriate way to peacefully resolve disputes between its members over the Spratly and Paracel islands, amid a round of gunboat diplomacy.

The new documents relating to the Code of Conduct are being passed around at the General Assembly in New York by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono urged all parties to the dispute to get on with earnest negotiations and find a legally binding code.

What suggested changes and diplomatic measures it contains remain a closely guarded secret. Nevertheless, Jakarta’s push is an indication that regional countries are increasingly fed up  –  particularly with China, the Philippines and Vietnam – in regards to their handling of the code.

Beijing has refused international arbitration and insists that any conflict on the seas should be settled on a bilateral basis, rather than through a multilateral mechanism as favored by the ASEAN states who are contesting the waters.

The June impasse at ASEAN was the first time in the trading bloc’s history that it failed to issue an end-of-summit communiqué. Cambodia, who hosted the meeting, was pilloried for putting the interests of China, which claims nearly all of the islands and surrounding waters, ahead of those of the 10 members.

Another meeting of leaders is scheduled for mid-November, with U.S. President Barack Obama expected to attend along with leaders from China, Europe and other regional powers – and Phnom Penh, which is also bidding for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, can ill-afford a repeat.

Jakarta has taken the initiative on this issue in recent months. If it produces some progress on a dispute that Yudhoyono noted had festered for much of the past century, ahead of the ASEAN leaders’ meeting, then that in itself would be a kind of victory.

An initial agreement to write up a code was agreed to by China and ASEAN a decade ago.

Also known as the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea in Vietnam, the area is rich in natural resources while more than half the world’s trade is ferried through the sea lanes separating Vietnam and The Philippines. Parts of the islands are also claimed by Malaysia and Brunei.