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Indonesia FM: Negotiations on Code of Conduct in South China Sea (East Sea) should resume soon

14:41 | 25/06/2020

Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi on June 24 said that negotiations with China on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (called the East Sea in Vietnam), delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, should resume soon to ease tensions in the region, reported Japan's Kyodo News.

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indonesia fm negotiations on code of conduct in south china sea east sea should resume soon
Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi. Photo: Anton Raharjo - Anadolu Agency

"We believe that the code of conduct will contribute in creating a conducive environment in the South China Sea," Retno told a press conference after an informal, virtual meeting of foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which preceded an annual ASEAN Summit scheduled for June 26.

The COC has long been discussed, with China and the ASEAN agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines in which they committed to "exercise self-restraint" with regard to "activities that would complicate or escalate disputes" in the East Sea.

The two sides had scheduled negotiations in Brunei in February, in the Philippines in May, in Indonesia in August and in China in October -- but all have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Kyodo, China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, home to some of the world's busiest sea lanes. It has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure, shifting the territorial status quo in its favor.

As it competes with the United States for influence in the region, China wants the COC to include a provision that observers view as intended to curb US naval operations in the waters.

Retno expressed concern over "rivalry among big powers in the South China Sea" and said it is important for ASEAN "to continuously send messages to all parties to contribute in the stability and peace" in the area.

"Collaboration and cooperation, not rivalry, must always be prioritized," she added.

indonesia fm negotiations on code of conduct in south china sea east sea should resume soon
A satellite photo shows the Chinese cable ship Tian Yi Hai Gong working on undersea cables, just north of Tree Island in Vietnam's Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelagoes in the East Sea, June 4, 2020. Image: Planet Labs

2020 has seen China step up their presence in the East Sea to a larger extent, with ever-increasing numbers involved and activities aimed at expanding their waters. Most notably, the Liaoning aircraft carrier based in the Taiwan Strait cruised into the East Sea and its coast guard boat sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the Paracel archipelago in early April, said Assoc. Prof. & PhD. Nguyen Hong Thao, a Vietnamese expert on international law, environmental law, maritime law, and border demarcation.

In addition, China has also sent research vessels to the economic exclusive zones and continental shelves of Malaysia and Brunei, along with increasing its military activities in the south. In other words, its activities are being carried out on an increasingly-larger scale, from propaganda, administration, law, to shows of force, Thao stressed in an exclusive interview to Voice of Vietnam (VOV).

Observers say that China’s attempts to create a new reality in the East Sea reveals a lack of respect for international law and the legitimate claims of its neighbors in the region.

Professor Carl Thayer from Australia’s University of New South Wales was quoted by Vietnam News Agency as saying that China’s announcement of the establishment of the so-called “Xisha district” (Vietnam’s Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago) and “Nansha district" (Vietnam’s Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago) under “Sansha city” is “a provocation, illegal under international law.”

China’s action is a violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) and seriously undermines negotiations among China and ASEAN member states for a legally binding Code of Conduct COC in the East Sea, he said.

According to VOV5, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) was signed at the ASEAN summit on October 4, 2002, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

DOC signatories agree to abide by international norms including to peacefully resolve disputes, not use or threaten to use armed force, respect the freedom of navigation, practice restraint in order not to complicate or escalate disputes, engage in dialogues and consultation, and contribute to the compilation of a Code of Conduct in the East Sea (COC).

The signing of the DOC in 2002 was a joint effort by all the ASEAN members and China and the first joint document relating to the East Sea. It was seen as an important step toward resolving maritime issues between the two sides.

A joint statement on the ASEAN-China strategic partnership adopted in Bali, Indonesia, on October 8, 2003, confirmed that the implementation of the DOC is a cooperative security measure between ASEAN and China.

At the 13th ASEAN-China high-level summit in Hanoi in October, 2010, leaders reiterated their commitments to fully and effectively implementing the DOC and working toward the COC.

ASEAN and China adopted guidelines for implementing the DOC in 2011, which cover the implementation of projects and compliance with other procedures including respecting the freedom of navigation and aviation in the East Sea.

All these must be in line with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to resolve sovereignty and territorial disputes by peaceful measures, not use or threaten to use force, seek solutions via negotiations and friendly consultative meetings, practice restraint, and not complicate disputes to affect peace and stability.

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Hannah Nguyen