Indonesia, China pledge to speed up South China Sea code talks

Tria Dianti
Indonesia, China pledge to speed up South China Sea code talks Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi (right) and her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, speak to reporters following their meeting in Jakarta, Feb. 22, 2023.
Adek Berry/Pool/AFP

China and Southeast Asian countries will accelerate South China Sea code of conduct talks, Beijing and ASEAN chairman Indonesia said on Wednesday amid regional tensions as the superpower has refused to relinquish its claim to almost the entire waterway.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, told reporters about their discussions following their meeting in Jakarta, the latter’s first visit to Indonesia as foreign minister.

“The two sides will work with other ASEAN countries to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), accelerate consultations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Qin said after talks with Retno.

Qin also met with Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who conveyed the importance of peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China signed the non-binding DOC in November 2002 as a basis for a peaceful dispute resolution on the South China Sea, but this was not implemented successfully.

The waterway, one of the world’s busiest for shipping, and a source for oil, natural gas and minerals, is claimed by ASEAN member-states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

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.

Earlier this month, Retno said Indonesia would host several rounds of negotiations on the code of conduct, with the first one to take place next month.

On Wednesday, Retno said South China Sea COC talks would be intensified.

“Indonesia and ASEAN want to produce an effective, substantive and actionable COC,” she said.

Despite Retno’s push, some analysts have said Beijing’s increasing activities in waters of claimant states mean the atmosphere is not favorable for such talks. They said it appears unlikely that such negotiations will end during Indonesia’s ASEAN chairmanship this year.

The negotiations aim to establish a set of rules to govern the behavior of all parties in the South China Sea.

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.

Jokowi, meanwhile, stressed the need for Indonesia and China be drivers of peace and stability in the region.

“According to the president, economic development cannot be achieved without peace and stability in the region,” according to a statement released by his office.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (left) meets Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Feb. 22, 2023. [Indonesia’s Presidential Palace handout via Reuters]

Belt and Road

Qin said Indonesia and China agreed to accelerate the construction of flagship projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, including the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, and to “ensure that they are completed and opened to traffic on schedule.”

The China-backed high-speed railway, Indonesia’s first, is scheduled to begin operations in July after construction was delayed because of issues ranging from environmental concerns to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, an Indonesian deputy minister said Jakarta and Beijing had agreed to reduce the amount of cost overrun on the rail project to U.S. $1.2 billion (18.2 trillion rupiah) from $1.4 billion (21.3 trillion rupiah).

Indonesia has been trying to negotiate a loan with the China Development Bank to finance most of the cost overrun. The government is funding $200 million of it, contradicting a decree in 2015 that prohibited the use of state funds for the project’s construction.


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