States involved in the South China Sea dispute should engage in “concrete cooperation” well before any code of conduct is developed, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has proposed.
In an exclusive interview with This Week in Asia ahead of his visit to the Asean summit on Saturday, Widodo said that such cooperation would be an important step towards ensuring peace in the disputed waters.
“In the transitional period before we have the code, the building block of trust is very important. I stress, very important,” he said.
Widodo’s comments indicate that Southeast Asia’s largest nation has no intention of becoming more confrontational over this potentially explosive issue. Asked for his assessment of the president’s remarks, maritime security expert Ian Storey said, “I do not discern a hardening of Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea, which remains consistent.”
Indonesia does not count itself among the states with active, competing claims over various parts of the South China Sea, but the vast archipelago has islands close to the resource-rich waters of the disputed territories.
Other than China, the four other claimant states are part of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). The grouping has been discussing with China the formulation of a code of conduct since 2010. It arrived at a first draft only last month. A final version mutually agreed upon by all remains months, if not years, away, analysts say.
The code covers a binding crisis management mechanism, the prevention of the establishment of offensive weapons and ensuring freedom of navigation, among other matters.
Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, said the code would take time. “Therefore, before any situation erupts, we should undertake a form of concrete cooperation, for example, doing joint research in maritime resources, also working together to improve the maritime infrastructure in the area, and then developing the fishing industry. I believe there are many areas that can be worked upon together.”
He would not be drawn into commenting on China’s highly controversial policy of building islands in the waters and planting military installations on them. He would only reiterate that trust-building was an important step for all parties to undertake.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion worth of trade passes every year. Its assertion of sovereignty has been contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. While the Philippines took its…