Arientha Primanita & Ismira Lutfia
Asean and China need a code of conduct for the South China Sea to avoid conflict and bolster stability in the region, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told a forum in Jakarta on Tuesday.
Yudhoyono’s comment came after members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to produce a united statement on how to handle territorial disputes in the area during their meeting in Pnomh Penh last week.
Host Cambodia rejected any reference to the South China Sea in the planned conference declaration, causing the cancelation of a joint statement and drawing criticism that the bloc was divided and under China’s influence.
China essentially claims the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in hydrocarbons and straddles strategic shipping lanes vital to global trade. Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have claims in the waters, leading to occasional diplomatic flare-ups.
Yudhoyono said at Tuesday’s forum, attended by former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, former East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta and Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, that countries in the region needed to help the claimants manage their disputes and keep temperature low.
“A meaningful and practicable code of conduct in the South China Sea is central to improving confidence building. It will help enhance predictability and bolster regional stability in a region that desperately needs it,” he said.
Yudhoyono said there would be no quick resolution to competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, warning that tensions must not be allowed to escalate.
“It is safe to assume, given the extreme complexity of the overlapping claims, that we will not see a diplomatic resolution of the South China Sea disputes in the short term, perhaps even in the medium term,” he said.
“Short of a comprehensive resolution, the claimants must do their best to manage and contain the disputes to make sure they do not escalate or worse lead to the outbreak of military clashes.”
It is not the first time Yudhoyono has expressed exasperation over the issue. “Things do not necessarily have to be this slow,” he told Asean foreign ministers meeting in Bali in July last year for the 44th Asean Foreign Ministers meeting.
“We need to send a strong signal to the world that the future of the South China Sea is a predictable, manageable and optimistic one.”
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who previously called the Phnom Penh deadlock “perplexing” and “very, very disappointing,” said on Monday that he would visit several Asean countries to seek support for a common position on the South China Sea issue.
“The failure or inability by Asean to reach a common position is potentially disruptive, and it cannot and should not be allowed to prevail for long,” he said.