Indonesia leads the way in the South China Sea disputes

The South China Sea is a resource-rich and strategic waterway, and China claims most of it for its own.

Indonesia leads the way in the South China Sea disputes
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and Foreign Ministers of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), including East Timor's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Adaljiza Magno prepare to pose for group photos during the 32nd ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC) meeting at the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 3, 2023. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

The backstory: The South China Sea is a resource-rich and strategic waterway, and China claims most of it for its own. But an international court in The Hague ruled in 2016 that China's "nine-dash line" boundary has "no legal basis." This boundary circles about 90% of the contested area and goes only a few hundred kilometers from the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, which also claim some ownership of parts of the sea. Brunei is the fourth country with stakes in the tug-of-war over the territory.

More recently: Talks between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) over the territory have been dragging on for years. Some member countries seem to focus more on maintaining their relationship with China than finding a solution for everyone. Also, the Philippines has given the US more access to its military bases, which China is not a fan of. So, negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea have been slow.

The development: In January, Indonesia became the ASEAN's new chair. It's considered neutral in the region, so there's the hope of some progress with Jakarta at the wheel. Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi held a two-day meeting this week with her Southeast Asian counterparts to discuss Indonesia's priorities, including the South China Sea code. They agreed to work together and finalize negotiations with China and help end the Myanmar crisis. The first round of talks is set for March, and Indonesia is ready to host more to wrap things up "as soon as possible."

Key comments:

“All of us agreed that it has to be an effective implementable in accordance with international law, and the code of conduct must fulfill this criteria,” said Sidharto Suryodipuro, head of ASEAN Cooperation at Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry, to reporters. “It’s an exploratory stage. We don’t know what shape it will take, but as you know negotiation is a key process that is something we intend to intensify.”

“The public should expect that Indonesia could provide fresh air for finding a political solution to the worsening conflict in Myanmar,” said Dinna Prapto Raharja, an international relations analyst with independent think tank Synergy Policies. “The fragmentation of power in Myanmar is worse and so managing the violence has become more complex.”

“As long as Indonesia is willing, it could use its chairmanship to move forward the code of conduct negotiations, even though it’s unlikely that the negotiations would be concluded in Indonesia’s hands,” said Wu Shicun, chairman of Hainan’s China-Southeast Asia Research Centre on the South China Sea. “After all, this involves 11 parties.”