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China and ASEAN Urged to Address South China Sea Issue through Cooperation

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Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi announced on Tuesday that her country is willing to collaborate with other Southeast Asian nations to finalize a long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea. Many neighboring countries, including Indonesia, have overlapping claims with China in the region.

During a joint press conference with her Filipino counterpart Enrique Manalo in Manila, Retno stated, “On the South China Sea, Indonesia is ready to work together with all ASEAN member states, including the Philippines, to finalize the Code of Conduct as soon as possible.” Indonesian President Joko Widodo is also scheduled to visit the Philippines.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have been attempting to establish a framework for negotiating a code of conduct since 2002. However, progress has been slow despite commitments from all parties to accelerate the process.

China has used a “nine-dash line” on its maps to assert its claim in the South China Sea. This line extends up to 1,500 km (900 miles) south of China’s mainland, encroaching upon the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In 2016, an international arbitral tribunal ruling invalidated the majority of China’s claims, a decision that Beijing has rejected.

China and ASEAN Urged to Address South China Sea Issue through Cooperation

Experts suggest that China and ASEAN members should work together to calmly address the South China Sea issue by focusing on cooperation among the claimants. Chheang Vannarith, former president of the Asian Vision Institute, stated that addressing the issue peacefully is not a matter of choice but a necessity for ASEAN and China. He believes that a new narrative for the issue should be built by emphasizing cooperation among ASEAN, China, and claimant states.

China and ASEAN recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, affirming the benefits of having the region as “a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation.” They also appreciated the progress made in the negotiations for the Code of Conduct (COC) and expressed confidence that the adoption of the COC would further promote regional peace and stability.

Although COC negotiations have been slow, Chheang noted that the process is on the right track as it highlights common interests and provides a political view to maintain peace and stability. Chheang emphasized the key position and responsibility of the claimants not to provoke the situation. He cautioned against involving external powers, such as the United States, as it could complicate efforts to resolve the dispute and undermine ASEAN’s unity and centrality.

Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, Vice President for External Affairs at Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute, stated that the US is keen on maintaining its hegemony in the South China Sea and the broader Asia-Pacific region. She believes that the US is using the Philippines as a pawn and proxy in its strategic competition and containment strategy against China. Malindog-Uy stressed the importance for the parties involved, particularly the Philippines and China, to pursue diplomatic channels and peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms to manage tensions in the region.

Nguyen Vinh Quang, Vice President of the Vietnam-China Friendship Association, noted that the territorial dispute between Vietnam and China is a historical problem but can be resolved through consultations and restraint. He emphasized the significance of maintaining stability for regional security and development, advocating for a peaceful and friendly resolution.

In a joint statement, China and Vietnam agreed to seek a lasting resolution to maritime disputes based on mutually acceptable terms and conforming to international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Chheang emphasized the need for a shared vision and commitment between China and ASEAN regarding the South China Sea issue. He suggested continuing non-traditional security cooperation to narrow differences and gradually work towards the COC. Other areas of cooperation, such as environmental cooperation, fishery, and piracy, can also help build mutual confidence.

Malindog-Uy argued for a strategic shift in resolving differences over the South China Sea, adopting a more Asian way of dispute resolution filled with goodwill and pragmatism. She emphasized treating the region as a zone of peace, cooperation, and joint development, ensuring that the issue does not hinder bilateral relations.

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