Indonesia offers to host next South China Sea Code of Conduct talk

Philippine Coast Guard personnel survey several ships believed to be Chinese militia vessels near Sabina Shoal in the South China Sea on April 27. - Reuters

JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/ANN): Indonesia has offered to host the next round of negotiations between Asean and China on the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea, after talks were suspended last year amid the pandemic.

The offer was made during a meeting of the foreign ministers of the 10 Asean countries and their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Chongqing, China, on Monday (June 7).

The event was held to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the partnership between the bloc and China. Monday’s meeting was the first in-person meeting between representatives of Asean and China in over a year.

The last time they met was in Vientiane, Laos, in February 2020, when China was already engulfed in the pandemic and some Southeast Asian countries were starting to detect their first cases.

After the Monday meeting, Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said both sides had discussed the issue of the South China Sea. She highlighted the importance of managing tensions in the strategic waters for Asean-China relations.

She added that both parties had to quickly resume discussions on the COC as progress had been halted.

The negotiation was postponed because Asean and Chinese officials were unable to meet face-to-face due to Covid-19 restrictions.

“We hope that these negotiations will be completed quickly with effective and substantive results. In this regard, Indonesia is ready to host a negotiation meeting in Jakarta in the near future, ” she said.

Asean hopes the COC will prevent all-out conflict among the claimants of the resource-rich and strategic body of water by setting ground rules for the bloc’s member states and China.

Many Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, are locked in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

China has made sweeping, and from many perspectives illegal, claims to nearly 90 per cent of the sea. While not itself a claimant, Indonesia has been opposing Chinese forays into waters under its economic jurisdiction.

In late 2018, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed a timeline of three years to conclude the COC talks. Prior to that, the two sides had agreed to work on a single negotiated draft text following a years-long political impasse.

The first reading of the draft COC was held ahead of schedule in July 2019.

In the beginning of 2020, the two sides scheduled meetings in Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia and China for a second set of readings, but they never took place because of the onset of pandemic travel restrictions.

This year was supposed to be when negotiators began their third and final reading of the text.

Chinese state media mouthpiece Xinhua reported that senior Asean and Chinese officials had agreed to resume the second reading of the Single Draft COC Negotiating Text “as soon as possible”.

“All parties stated their belief that China and the Asean countries, despite the impact of the epidemic, have stayed committed to the full and effective implementation of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) and to sustaining the COC process in a flexible and pragmatic manner, ” the agency reported.

China’s incursions in the South China Sea have stoked tension in recent weeks. Last week, Malaysia protested “suspicious” flights by 16 Chinese air force planes over the South China Sea near the East Malaysian state of Sarawak.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the planes were a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.

Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Kamarudin Jaffar raised the issue on the sidelines of Monday’s meeting.

The Philippines has also repeatedly demanded that Chinese vessels leave areas it maintains are within its jurisdiction.

In late May, the country protested what it said was China’s “incessant deployment, prolonged presence and illegal activities” around Thitu Island, which is located about 451km from the country’s mainland.

The island is the biggest of the eight reefs, shoals and islands that make up the Spratly archipelago.

China has built a mini city with runways, hangars and surface-to-air-missile installations on Subi Reef, about 25km from Thitu.

Retno encouraged all parties to continue to comply with the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), which requires countries to exercise “self-restraint”.

“I reiterate that our ability to manage the South China Sea will strengthen our equal, mutually beneficial and indispensable partnership for global peace and stability.

"Every step must be done in accordance with Unclos 1982, ” she said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which outlines nations’ rights and responsibilities regarding the use of the world’s oceans. - The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

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