South China Sea COC negotiations continue next month amid rising Asia-Pacific tensions

The negotiations would be part of Indonesia’s priority to implement the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Yvette Tanamal

Yvette Tanamal

The Jakarta Post


February 6, 2023

JAKARTA – This year’s first round of negotiations for the Code of Conduct (COC) at the South China Sea will commence in March, said the Foreign Ministry on Friday, where Indonesia as ASEAN chairman will lead efforts to “explore new approaches” in navigating the increasingly “destabilized” region. 

The biggest hurdle for the upcoming talks, it added, would be mitigating the “security dilemma” which would inevitably make itself present, they noted.

The negotiations would be part of Indonesia’s priority to implement the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the ministry added, whereby all ASEAN member states have pledged their commitment to promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), a document officiated two decades ago which calls for the formulation of the COC. 

“[We agreed] to make our meetings with dialogue partners more effective and productive. […] Commitment of members to conclude the negotiations of COC as soon as possible is obvious, bearing in mind the need to have a substantive, effective and actionable COC,” said Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi on the last day of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (AMM). 

Recent months have seen China’s nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea resulting in escalating tensions within the region. In late December, Beijing had sent its largest coastal guard vessel to monitor the North Natuna Sea, an area under Jakarta’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), just weeks before the United States announced its plans to build military bases in the Philippines. 

The muscle flexing between the two superpowers has put ASEAN countries in a precarious position, with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan warning that the situation “bears careful monitoring” on Wednesday ahead of Retno’s statement that the rivalry had become “destabilizing” to ASEAN. 

Age-old dilemma 

Under Indonesia’s chairmanship, Jakarta will put in the necessary elbow grease to set the rules of the game, the ministry’s ASEAN Cooperation Director-General Sidharto Suryodipuro told reporters at the ASEAN Secretariat. 

“What’s important [about the negotiation] is that all of us have agreed that [the COC] has to be effective, implementable [and] in accordance with international law,” said Sidharto. 

Sidharto did not elaborate further on the “new approaches” likely to be taken by ASEAN, except that it was still in the “exploratory state” with inclusivity as one of the primary requirements. It remained unclear how the talks or the outcome will take shape, but the process could be just as important as the outcome, the official added. 

Currently, the COC is still awaiting its second reading. 

Meanwhile, Sidharto explained that mitigating the security dilemma, a scenario whereby a party’s increased arms in a region would prompt others to follow suit in a never-ending cycle, throughout the South China Sea remains one of the most challenging aspects of negotiating the COC. But Indonesia was more than willing to start the process, he affirmed.

“Problems are typically birthed by this dilemma among ASEAN’s partners. ASEAN will provide the necessary platform to talk this problem through,” said Sidharto. 

Money at stake 

While security was definitely among Indonesia’s top priorities when dealing with the South China Sea, it was also apparent that there were economic interests currently obstructed by Beijing’s claim and activities in the Asia-Pacific waters. 

In January, the Indonesian government said that it planned to offer contracts for 10 oil and gas working areas along the Natuna Sea’s gas fields to boost energy production. While the area was under Jakarta’s EEZ, recent Chinese activities made it clear that Beijing would like to differ.

Additionally, Retno in her closing speech emphasized Indonesia’s interest in a new ASEAN mechanism, the development of the “ASEAN Maritime Outlook” to boost maritime cooperation beyond security matters. 

“We agreed among others to […] develop an ASEAN Blue Economy Framework [and] develop an ASEAN Maritime Outlook,” said Retno. 

“Indonesia looks forward to working closely with all stakeholders throughout the year.”

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