Vietnamese, Indonesian presidents discuss South China Sea concerns

RFA staff
Vietnamese, Indonesian presidents discuss South China Sea concerns Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo (left) and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong shake hands during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Jan. 12, 2024.
Nhac Nguyen/AFP

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his Vietnamese counterpart agreed Friday to push toward concluding a “substantive and effective” Code of Conduct for the South China Sea amid rising tensions in the region.

Widodo was in Hanoi on the second leg of his tour to three Southeast Asian countries – the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei – countries that have competing claims with China’s in the waterway.

During their meeting, Jokowi and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong discussed the strategic partnership between the two countries.

“They reaffirmed the importance of peace, stability, safety, security, and freedom of navigation and overflight in the East Sea,” said the government-run Voice of Vietnam (VOV), referring to the South China Sea by its Vietnamese name.

“They pledged to fully and effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC), and push ahead with negotiations to reach a substantive, effective Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC) in line with international law,” it said.

China and ASEAN agreed on a declaration of conduct in 2002, but progress on passing a binding code of conduct has been slow going amid an increasing risk of conflict.

Before arriving in Hanoi, Jokowi discussed the South China Sea with host Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and “affirmed our insistence on the universality of UNCLOS, which sets out the legal framework that governs all activities in the oceans and in the seas,” according to an official statement.

Manila has accused Beijing of escalating aggression in the waters under the Philippines’ jurisdiction, or the West Philippine Sea. China refuted the accusations and blamed the Philippines for “provocation.”

Maritime cooperation

In light of recent developments in the South China Sea, “on Dec. 30, 2023, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a joint statement on maintaining and promoting stability in the maritime sphere in Southeast Asia,” said Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, lecturer on international relations at Universitas Indonesia.

“Consistent with this joint statement, [during Jokowi’s visit] the two sides – Indonesia and Vietnam – will agree to avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” said Supriyanto, who is also a fellow at Forum Sinologi Indonesia, a research institution.

But much will depend on China which “does not want any of the ASEAN claimants to base their actions only on UNCLOS,” according to the academic.

“From Beijing’s perspective, the only way to manage and settle the disputes is to negotiate with China directly. Anything else China sees as counterproductive, even provocative,” he said.

Six parties – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China – claim parts of the South China Sea. Beijing’s claim, the so-called nine-dash line, encircles almost 90% of the sea.

Jokowi Natuna (1).jpg
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi’ Widodo (center) tours a military base in the Natuna islands, Jan. 8, 2020. [Indonesian Presidential Palace via AFP]

Indonesia is not a claimant in the broader sea but its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claim overlaps with those of Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as with China.

“Indonesia too is a little bit cautious in their approach to the whole dispute in the South China Sea,” said Nguyen The Phuong, a Vietnamese security analyst.

“They have strong material capabilities, as well as being seen as the de-facto leader of ASEAN, but not being one of the claimants make them hesitant to push hard on the issue,” said Phuong, who is studying for a doctorate degree at UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

It doesn’t mean Vietnam and Indonesia can’t “continue cooperation in maritime law enforcement in both bilateral and multilateral manners,” he said.

The Vietnamese and Indonesian navies reached an agreement on joint training procedures in 2021 and the two countries’ coast guard forces at the end of 2022 also signed a memorandum of understanding on security cooperation.

“Maybe there will be other agreements on defense cooperation, especially the defense industry,” Phuong said.

Agreement on boundaries

In 2023, Indonesia as the rotating chairman organized a five-day ASEAN Solidarity Exercise (ASEX 23) – the group’s first ever joint naval drills focusing on humanitarian disaster responses.

Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto from Universitas Indonesia, who proposed ASEAN coordinated patrols in the South China Sea, said the bloc needs “novel initiatives” when dealing with China’s excessive claims.

“The fact is that countries have tried for decades negotiating with China in vain,” he said, “China does not back down from its nine-dash line, which others including Vietnam and Indonesia, do not recognize.”

“Coordinated patrols can be one of those initiatives, which can start with two ASEAN countries, like Indonesia and Vietnam, before expanding it to others,” Supriyanto told Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

Vietnamese analyst Nguyen The Phuong cast doubt on the proposal.

“Vietnam until now has been very reluctant on joining any joint patrol with other countries, so I don’t think that approach would change anytime soon,” he said, adding that the two countries could cooperate on other important issues such as fighting against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

On Friday, Jokowi and his Vietnamese host Thuong witnessed the signing of a memorandum on fisheries cooperation.

Viet fishermen (1).jpg
Vietnamese fishermen are detained by Indonesian authorities in Batam, Kepulauan Riau, for illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, March 4, 2020. [Teguh Prihatna/AFP]

Jakarta has long been complaining about illegal activities by Vietnamese fishing boats in the waters surrounding the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea where the two countries’ claims overlap.

In December 2022, after 12 years of negotiations, Indonesia and Vietnam reached an agreement on the boundaries of their exclusive economic zones. Yet the two countries are still in the process of finalizing the implementing arrangements and the agreed boundary demarcation has not been made public.

“If the agreement is really final, then the two sides should publish the map,” said Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto. “I guess they have not published it due to concerns of provoking China like the Malaysia-Vietnam joint submission of continental shelf did in May 2009.”

Just one day after the joint submission of Malaysia and Vietnam to the U.N., China filed a formal communication stating that the joint submission seriously infringed China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea.

“In this case, not publishing the map is one of the ways to avoid actions that may further complicate the situation,” said the Indonesian scholar.

“The way I see it, however, this plays directly into the Chinese playbook of keeping it low and subtle while Beijing persuades and pressures other claimants and non-claimants alike to accommodate its nine-dash line,” he said.


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