“In every element of conflict there is always an opportunity for cooperation,” said one of Indonesia’s well-respected diplomats as well as maritime legal expert, Hasyim Djalal, 15 years ago referring to the South China Sea (SCS).
Sadly, even after 15 years of strenuous efforts by Indonesia as a regional power and one of the founders of ASEAN, an element of cooperation has not emerged among claimant countries on the issue of the South China Sea.
As the leaders of the 10 ASEAN countries and their eight partners gather in Phnom Penh, the pertinent question now is what can be done to avoid a major conflict in Southeast Asia?
The strict implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea and parties agreeing to a binding Code of Conduct (COC) could be the modi vivendi to resolve the tough problems in the South China Sea dispute, which involves Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
There should be enhanced efforts to find a peaceful solution to the problem. It is already more than two decades since Indonesia launched track two diplomacy in January 1990, hosting a series of informal workshops on managing potential conflicts over the South China Sea.
It took 10 years to put forward a binding COC proposal, a further step to the agreed DOC. However, progress has been painfully slow. The fast changing situation emanating from an assertive China and the “rebalancing” by the US of its foreign policy to the Asia Pacific, especially dynamic Southeast Asia, needs urgent enhanced action from both Indonesia and ASEAN.
What kind of role can Indonesia play in helping to resolve these disputes that have the potential to become a major conflict and threaten stability in the region?
Though Indonesia is not a claimant country, it has a large stake in the dispute. First, China’s controversial nine-dashed, U-shaped line touches Indonesia’s Natuna gas field and its adjacent waters, and second, it feels that the South China Sea disputes threaten peace and stability in ASEAN.
Indonesia has played a role in all the peacebuilding initiatives, ranging from the DOC to the COC, to disentangle the South China Sea imbroglio.
“Since the South China Sea disputes are a potential source of conflict and instability in the region, Indonesia has been playing an active role in getting ASEAN to seek to ensure that the disputes do not escalate into armed conflict,” Rodolfo C. Severino, former ASEAN secretary-general, recently wrote in the Global Times daily.
It’s a fact that Southeast Asian countries are very weak states in comparison to the mighty China, while ASEAN is a loose-knit inter-governmental organization. That’s why China always want to discuss the issue with individual countries rather that at a regional level. It’s time for Indonesia to work on building unity within ASEAN, not only for the South China Sea dispute but also other issues.
In three years’ time, all 10 member states will become a single community. If ASEAN is united, its bargaining position and leverage will be enhanced, and it will be able to deal with major issues as a family.
Since the South China Sea disputes affect both claimants and non-claimants alike, ASEAN unity is crucial.
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