Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has met his Philippine counterpart, Albert del Rosario, in Manila as part of a diplomatic offensive to cement over internal differences revealed at the recent ASEAN summit.
As part of his tour of Asia, Indonesia's foreign minister will visit Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore in an attempt to seek consensus among the ASEAN bloc on the issue of a proposed “code of conduct” for the South China Sea.
Southeast Asian nations are deeply divided in the matter with Cambodia, which hosted the latest ASEAN summit, fully toeing China's line and not allowing the subject to become a part of the meeting’s agenda, saying it was not a matter to be discussed at such a multilateral forum.
All attempts by the Philippines or Vietnam to mention the simmering territorial disputes were nipped in the bud, the price for which was an unprecedented ending to the ill-starred summit. For the first time in 45 years, an ASEAN summit concluded without a joint statement being issued.
Apart from Taiwan and China, which lays historical claims to almost the entire area, the South China Sea has four other claimants: the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, all of which are ASEAN members.
China expands its influence
CNOOC, China's leading offshore oil producer, declared on Tuesday that a tender inviting firms to bid for oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea was progressing well and even attracting the interest of some US-based companies.
The state-run CNOOC had issued the tender in late June for developing nine blocks in the western part of the South China Sea. Vietnam declared the move to be illegal since the blocks overlapped its territorial waters and their ownership was disputed.
Furthermore, the Jialong, China's most technologically advanced manned submersible vehicle, is scheduled to conduct tests in the South China Sea in April and May of the coming year. The Jialong has reached depths of over 7,000 meters in the Pacific Ocean and is said to give China the ability to explore 99 percent of the world's seabeds. The Jialong mission in the South China Sea in the spring of 2013 will be "part of the preparations for future commercial mining of the seabed," as the China Daily quoted the China Ocean Mineral Resources and Research Association as saying.
With the South China Sea issue scratching at ASEAN's credibility and unity, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said at a press conference on Wednesday that it was "critically important" for the bloc to make progress on the issue. "If we do not do anything, we know the damage will become bigger," Natalegawa said. He is trying to get the ASEAN member states to agree to certain principles regarding the South China Sea, such as avoiding the use of force and resolving conflicts in accordance with international laws and last but not least, the signing of a legally binding "code of conduct."
Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore recently published a paper entitled "Indonesia's South China Sea Dilemma: Between Neutrality and Self-Interest."
He told DW that "Indonesia wants to play the potential mediator in the dispute,” since it has been striving for a common position on the so-called conduct since it held the chair.
"But Hanoi and Manila do not want any elements in the code of conduct that are too lenient, too watered down," he explained. “Such steps will still leave China an opportunity to engage in the current tactics."
Supriyanto said that he thought Natalegawa was trying to get Manila and Hanoi to desist from mentioning such issues as the disputed Scarborough Shoal - in the case of Vietnam - in a move, not to appease China, but for the sake of a common position on the proposed code of conduct, and to demonstrate to the world ASEAN's relevance in troubled waters and troubled times.
Author: Arun Chowdhury (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)
Editor: Anne Thomas