Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa called on fellow Asean members to work harder and to leave “negative assumptions” behind in order to come up with a common position regarding the South China Sea dispute.
“Between now and the Phnom Penh summit in November we have to work hard,” he said. “It’s all about preparations, consultations and no surprises. I don’t want to leave things to chance.”
The standoff over territorial disputes between four Asean states — the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia — with China had put the spotlight on the alliance when, for the first time since its establishment in 1967, it failed to come up with a common statement or joint communique in July.
The joint communique was supposed to be a base in which to negotiate a code of conduct between the Association of Southeast Asian nations and China regarding the South China Sea. Failure to issue such a code, critics said, might jeopardize the future relationship between the two forces as well as threaten political stability within the region.
Following the July meeting, Marty embarked on a 36-hour “shuttle diplomacy” mission to the conflicting countries and was able to get the countries to agree on six general principles on the issue.
That included urging for an early conclusion of the code, full respect of the recognized principles of International Law, and continued exercise of self-restraint and non-use of force by all parties.
“The development of the South China Sea [issues] reminds us how we desperately need the code of conduct, [so] I’m trying to use the momentum,” Marty continued.
Currently, there is a “vicious cycle of trust and distrust between member countries,” he said.
“Parties throwing blame. Opposition. Canceling each other’s efforts,” Marty said. “Everyone is behaving based on their worst assumption of the other country’s intent. They feel that if they exercise restraint, other countries will take advantage of them. We have to change the dynamics.”
But so far, it seems nobody is listening. A meeting of senior officials from the Asean and China in Phnom Penh that was held last week to discuss, among other things, the South China Sea dispute, also failed to come to an accord.
Marty refused to be pessimistic, however. “We are now in the process of spelling out the draft [of the code] and we hope to be able to share it with my Asean foreign minister colleagues when I meet them in New York next week,” he continued, referring to the UN General Assembly that will take place on Sept. 27.
Foreign ministers of Asean countries, which are all members of the United Nations, had been using the assembly as an occasion to have a side-meeting to discuss regional issues.
Marty also said that Sept. 27 became an important date since it would be the first time for Asean foreign ministers to meet again after July.
“What are the lessons learned? Are we wiser? Indonesia wants to show [the world] that what happened [in July] was an exception,” he continued.
He is convinced that Asean’s common perspective is also in China’s favor.
“It is in the best interest of China for the diplomatic process within the Asean to go well.”