Southeast Asian nations need to settle their competing claims in the South China Sea before deciding how to handle Beijing’s or Washington’s policies on the disputed waterway, Malaysia’s foreign minister said Tuesday after a virtual meeting with his regional counterparts.
Still, slow deliberation on the issue by governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has prevented wars from breaking out in the volatile waters, Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Putrajaya ahead of the 37th ASEAN Summit, which is set to begin Thursday.
“The most important [thing] for us in ASEAN is to get our house in order first. As you know, there are duplicating claims within the ASEAN members, so even if the superpowers of China and the U.S. become a consideration, we still need to live and navigate the difficult waters of the South China Sea among ourselves. So the first step is to deal with our members in ASEAN,” Hishammuddin said.
While six other Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China, a few ASEAN countries too have competing claims in the waterway.
Just in August, members of the Malaysian coast guard shot dead a Vietnamese sailor during a violent confrontation with Vietnamese-flagged fishing boats suspected of encroaching in Malaysian waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam has expansive claims in the waters that edge into the territory of the Philippines and Malaysia.
Two days after the incident in Malaysia, authorities in Thailand’s Deep South said they had arrested 36 Vietnamese fishermen and confiscated their four boats on suspicion of poaching in Thai waters.
In May last year, Indonesia sank dozens of foreign boats that were seized after they strayed illegally into its waters, including many vessels from Vietnam.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry also said it summoned Hanoi’s deputy ambassador after the Indonesian navy claimed that two Vietnamese coast guard boats had rammed one of its ships patrolling against illegal fishing near the Natuna Islands.
Footage provided by Indonesia's navy shows a Vietnamese Coast Guard ship and an Indonesian warship colliding in the Natuna Sea (Indonesia's name for the South China Sea off the Natuna Islands), April 27, 2019.
Vietnam and Indonesia have overlapping exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea, and while they are in negotiations over it, they have yet to reach an agreement because neither nation wants to let go of fishing rights in the North Natuna Sea.
Technically, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines all have competing claims to land features, such as islets, reefs and rocks, in the South China Sea.
Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand are all ASEAN members. These nations, as well as the government of Taiwan, have competing claims with China to parts of the South China Sea.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the Royal Malaysian Navy said it had chased away three Indonesian fishing boats which, the navy said, were operating in Malaysian waters in the Strait of Malacca a day earlier.
The navy’s West Fleet Command Center said that its ship, the KD Laksamana Tan Pusmah, had received information on Monday afternoon that several foreign boats were detected at a position 26 nautical miles from Pulau Perak in Kedah state.
“KD Laksamana Tan Pusmah was ordered to approach the location and conduct inspection, where it found three Indonesian fishing boats inside Malaysian waters. They then chased out the boats by escorting the boats until they left Malaysian waters at 4 p.m.,” the statement said.
Several preliminary ministerial meetings, including the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, were held Tuesday via video link ahead of the Nov. 12-15 ASEAN Summit. That will be the final meeting of Southeast Asian heads of state that Vietnam is hosting in its role as the bloc’s chair for 2020.
At their virtual meeting Tuesday, ASEAN foreign ministers “reiterated the grouping’s resolve to resume negotiations on the Code of Conduct,” or COC, in the South China Sea region, according to a statement posted on the ASEAN Vietnam 2020 website.
In 2018, Beijing agreed to a draft COC that would eventually serve as basis for the agreement. The next year, the 10 members of ASEAN agreed with China to finalize the code in three years.
Claimant states other than China have been pushing for a code to spell out steps that each nation could take to prevent disputes from spiraling out of control. Some countries want the code to be legally binding and subject to ratification by signatory states.
“Today we talked about the code of conducts,” which is “a positive and constructive way forward,” Hishammuddin said, referring to the COC and its predecessor, the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC.
“This is the ASEAN way, anyway,” he said, adding that it was the grouping’s approach to dealing with “the emotional and political balance between the superpowers in the South China Sea.”
Hishammuddin said that despite ASEAN members’ competing claims in the waterway, they haven’t had serious conflicts on the issue, which has been a focus of heightened rhetoric between China and Washington in recent months.
The reason is the bloc’s countries believe that the issue must be dealt with collectively, not individually, Malaysia’s top diplomat said.
“So what ASEAN, in its slow deliberation has managed to do, is at least we have not ended up having wars, not had people dying because of emotional issues,” he told reporters.
“Unintended and accidental incidents in the South China Sea must be avoided as regional stability is ever more important for all our countries in this unprecedented time,” Hishammuddin said in a statement issued separately after the virtual meeting with his ASEAN counterparts.
“It is more courageous to be patient in dealing with these issues rather than playing to the gallery and gaining political points because lives are at stake,” said Hishammuddin without naming any countries.
At the end of the previous meeting in September, the ASEAN foreign ministers, in a joint communique, expressed concern over increased tensions in the South China Sea.
The ministers reaffirmed the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
Member-states also said they were caught in the middle of a verbal confrontation between Beijing and Washington over the waterway.
Tensions in the region have been rising since U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in July that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea were illegal. Washington, he said at the time, stood with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”
Beijing, for its part, accused the United States of continuing to interfere in the South China Sea. In August, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the U.S. the “biggest driver of militarization of the South China Sea,” Chinese media reported.
When asked about what he thinks ASEAN can expect from the next U.S. president, Hishammuddin said it was too early to tell.
“With regards to the U.S. in the South China Sea, we will have to see what is the policy with the new administration, and we have to see the stance of the other superpower up north” he said, referring to Beijing.