February 24, 2023
JAKARTA – New Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, alongside his Indonesian counterpart Retno LP Marsudi, announced in a joint statement on Wednesday that China was committed to “synergizing” with nations from Southeast Asia to keep the South China Sea peaceful and stable, amid heightened tensions over the disputed waters.
In the statement, issued during Qin’s maiden state visit to the region, China pledged to uphold contributions to regional security and intensify dialogue.
Qin claimed Beijing would work toward a “prosperous, beautiful and amicable” region and champion “true multilateralism”, an apparent swipe at United States-led mini-lateral groupings focused on containing Chinese aggression.
“Both China and Indonesia […] will work with other ASEAN countries to fully and effectively […] speed up consultations on the COC to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
The COC refers to the yet-to-be-completed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which was called for in a 2002 agreement between ASEAN and China to manage overlapping border claims.
The code aims to prevent open conflict by offering a set of guidelines for claimant states and others from around the region to follow when operating in the busy body of water.
“We hope and trust Indonesia and other ASEAN countries bear in mind stability and prosperity in the region,” Qin said.
Representing ASEAN chair Indonesia, Retno emphasized the need to expedite negotiations on the COC.
“Indonesia and ASEAN would like to produce an effective, substantive and actionable code,” Retno said after her meeting with Qin in Jakarta.
“Indonesia would like to see a peaceful and stable South China Sea. Respect toward international laws, especially to UNCLOS, would be key,” she added.
The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is an international legal framework that underpins maritime border disputes and has been used to invalidate China’s sweeping claims to much of the South China Sea.
While Qin’s stopover marked the 10th anniversary of Indonesia and China’s comprehensive strategic partnership, it also came ahead of the first round of renewed COC talks scheduled for March.
Recent weeks have seen rapidly escalating tensions in the resource-rich sea, with the US announcing its intention to set up military bases in the Philippines and the fallout from a recent diplomatic fiasco involving a Chinese spy balloon further complicating relations between the superpowers.
Following the developments, Indonesia issued a public warning against any potential “open conflict” in the region. Experts have pointed out that turmoil in the South China Sea would impact Indonesia’s economy and security more negatively than any other existing conflict.
Advancing the COC is among Indonesia’s top priorities as ASEAN chair this year and will be part of its efforts to implement the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which aims for inclusive cooperation in the area.
But with the COC stuck in a two-decade rut, the Foreign Ministry has announced plans to explore inclusive “new approaches” while providing sufficient space for dialogue.
Yet the jury is still out on what strategy Jakarta will pursue.
“Indonesia will highly appreciate it if China would participate in the AOIP’s implementation,” minister Retno said on Wednesday.
Analysts have said it is essential that China walks the talk and refrains from further hostilities, amid varying degrees of skepticism about its intentions among ASEAN nations.
More than words
While Beijing has on many occasions expressed its commitment to safeguarding peace in the disputed waters, experts remain doubtful of its sincerity, especially given the country’s behavior toward claimants to parts of the South China Sea.
“China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has only increased. It has been loud about its activities, without any sense of reservation either. That is worrying and definitely not a positive sign for the finalization of COC negotiations,” said I Made Andi Arsana, an expert on the South China Sea dispute at Gadjah Mada University.
The Philippines has expressed similar concerns, and on the same day as Qin’s statement, it discussed with Australia plans to conduct joint patrols in the South China Sea. Earlier, Manila had been communicating with the US to set up similar arrangements, Reuters reported.
Involved in a dispute over the Spratly Islands with China, the Philippines has been on the receiving end of Beijing’s aggression, including in early February, when the Chinese coast guard pointed a military-grade laser toward its vessels.
“Countries in such open disputes, like the Philippines and Vietnam, will naturally align themselves with Washington to balance out Beijing’s prowess,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior international relations expert at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN).
With the next set of COC talks just around the corner, Dewi suggested that Beijing see the increased security engagement of ASEAN countries with the US as a warning to be compliant with UNCLOS, instead of escalating hostilities.
“China should see that the longer it postpones the COC, the more it is pushing non-aligned countries to get cozy with its enemies. […] No country will easily give in to China’s aggression,” she said on Wednesday.