ASEAN chair Indonesia: South China Sea code of conduct must be ‘actionable’

Tria Dianti
ASEAN chair Indonesia: South China Sea code of conduct must be ‘actionable’ An Indonesian Air Force F-16 fighter jet flies over an Indonesian Navy warship in Natuna, near the South China Sea, Indonesia, Jan. 10, 2020.
[M Risal Hidayat/Antara Foto/Reuters]

Indonesia and other ASEAN members want a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea to be “effective, substantive and actionable,” the country’s foreign ministry said Friday after talks this week with China and other Southeast Asian nations over the disputed waterway.

Remarks by Sidharto Suryodipuro, a director at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, came after a senior U.S. diplomat called for a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea that follows international law.

“We do not want it to just be a document where we agree for the sake of agreeing,” Sidharto, the ministry’s director for ASEAN cooperation, told reporters after a three-day meeting between senior Chinese officials and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“The COC [code of conduct] has to be effective, substantive and actionable,” he said.

Under negotiation since 2002, the code is meant to prevent conflicts and maintain stability in the South China Sea, where four ASEAN members – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have competing territorial claims with China.

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

In recent years, tensions have risen as China has asserted its sovereignty over most parts of the sea by building artificial islands housing military facilities, deploying coast guard ships and enforcing fishing bans, prompting protests from other claimants as well as from Washington.

This year’s ASEAN chair, Indonesia, hopes to use its influence as the largest nation in the region to expedite a successful outcome. The talks that ended Wednesday were the first round of negotiations this year following a meeting in Cambodia in October 2022.

Also on Wednesday, Daniel Kritenbrink, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said Washington stood for freedom of navigation, freedom of flight, unimpeded lawful commerce and peaceful resolutions of disputes across the South China Sea, The Jakarta Post reported.

“In light of that, we have continued to call for the effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the parties,” Kritenbrink told a small group of reporters at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, where he was on a three-day visit.

“And we’ve long supported the conclusion of a binding Code of Conduct that recognizes the rights of all involved and that is fully consistent with international law,” he was quoted as saying.

On Friday, Sidharto skirted the issue when asked if the code would be binding.

“We try to avoid using the word binding because international legal experts do not all agree with the word binding. It is a concept that may be populist, but its practical value will depend on the content of that document,” he said.

The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways and has an abundance of natural resources. It is home to several flashpoints involving maritime disputes over oil and gas exploration projects and fishing rights.

‘Minimal outside meddling’

Gilang Kembara, an analyst at Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said it was crucial to differentiate between the COC and the DOC (Declaration of Conduct). The latter was signed in 2002 and laid out general principles for peaceful coexistence, but lacked enforcement mechanisms.

“A COC that is not legally binding is no different from the DOC. Therefore, there is a demand for the COC to be made binding, so that it can be obeyed by all parties, including China,” Gilang said.

Jakarta’s stance that ASEAN should not be used as a pawn or coerced into choosing sides by either Beijing or Washington could pave the way for productive talks on the code of conduct, according to Muhammad Arif, who teaches international relations at the University of Indonesia.

“China seems to respect this principle and wants minimal outside meddling in dealing with ASEAN,” Arif told BenarNews.

But this approach could also strain ties with some ASEAN members such as the Philippines, which relies heavily on U.S. support for its security interests, he added.

China has never accepted the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, in a case brought by the Philippines, which said that Beijing’s expansive “historical claims” in the South China Sea have no legal basis.

The Philippines has been assertive in challenging China’s claims over most of the South China Sea since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assumed office on June 30 and made resolving territorial disputes his priority. Since then, Manila has filed at least 77 diplomatic protests against Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

Just last month, Manila granted U.S. troops access to four new military bases, with the U.S. defense chief saying “America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is iron-clad.”

Analysts have cast doubt on whether ASEAN and China could reach such an agreement anytime soon. 

They say there are still many obstacles to overcome, such as China’s reluctance to accept any limits on its activities or interests in the area; ASEAN’s lack of unity and leverage over Beijing; and divergent views among claimants on how to manage their disputes.

The U.S. has been challenging China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea through freedom of navigation operations and diplomatic support for its allies and partners in Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, Kritenbrink said Washington would not ask countries to choose between the U.S. and China and that the U.S. recognized ASEAN member states based on their inherent value.

“[W]e are going to speak out candidly about the broad range of areas where Chinese behavior is concerning to us, actions that we believe undermine peace and stability and challenge the rules-based international order,” he said.

“What we want to do is ensure that you have choices and the ability to make your own choices, free from coercion.”


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