Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo called for restraint in the South China Sea in Washington, D.C. just hours after the U.S. navy carried out much-anticipated freedom of navigation operation near China’s controversial artificial islands there.
While Indonesia does not consider itself a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, Jokowi told an audience at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, that Indonesia had an important interest in ensuring regional peace and stability. He encouraged all parties to exercise restraint just as China and the United States traded barbs following patrols conducted by USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially-built islands.
“Indonesia is not a party to the dispute. But we have legitimate interest in peace and stability there. That is why we call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from taking actions that could undermine trust and confidence and put at risk the peace and stability of the region,” Jokowi said in prepared remarks delivered in English. The Indonesian president is on his inaugural visit to the United States which has been cut short due to the haze crisis from raging forest fires back home (See: “Exclusive: US, Indonesia to Strengthen Partnership During Jokowi Visit“).
Tensions in the area, Jokowi said, “must be defused through peaceful means, especially based on UNCLOS,” referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which forms the basis of international law on such questions. Earlier this year, Jokowi told a Japanese newspaper that China’s nine-dash line had “no basis in any international law” (See: “No, Indonesia’s South China Sea Approach Has Not Changed”). The controversial claim is being challenged by the Philippines in a UN tribunal.
“We need to talk closely to ensure good order at sea, prevent incidents and ensure freedom of navigation,” Jokowi added.
Asked about how Indonesia would manage its relationship with China following his speech, Jokowi emphasized that Beijing was “an important partner” for Indonesia, along with other countries like the United States and Japan.
But he also addressed the South China Sea within that question, stressing the need for China and ASEAN to make progress on a binding code of conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea for the sake of regional peace and stability. Beijing has long been accused of dragging its feet on the CoC as it continues its assertive behavior in the South China Sea.
“We need peace and stability in the region and we want ASEAN countries and China to start discussing about the content of the code of conduct, to start discussing element by element of the code of conduct,” he said.
Jokowi repeated his familiar refrain that Indonesia wants to play “an active role” in this issue. But he did not provide any more specificity about what that role might look like.
Last week, Indonesia’s defense minister Ryamizard Ryacudu raised eyebrows when he reportedly told state-run news agency Antara, following a meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of an ASEAN-China defense ministers’ meeting, that if countries who have interests in the South China Sea can calm tensions on their own, “there’s no need to involve other parties in resolving the dispute.”
Ryamizard, who is also part of Jokowi’s delegation in the United States, had also said he would use the visit as an opportunity to explain to the United States the purpose of new patrols that China has proposed with ASEAN countries, which The Diplomat reported on last week. (See: “China Reveals New Proposal to Boost Defense Ties with ASEAN States”).
“We will explain to the United States the purpose of conducting joint sea patrols in the South China Sea by ASEAN countries and China, he said (See: “The Truth About China’s New South China Sea Drill Proposal With ASEAN”).
“Indonesia is committed to supporting all parties that prioritize peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Yesterday, Jokowi singled out the South China Sea as a “serious issue” that he had discussed with U.S. President Barack Obama during their summit in a speech that the Indonesian president delivered at a dinner reception (See: “Indonesia Wants to Join TPP: President Jokowi”).