Photo source: ASEAN Indonesia 2023 - Photo: 2023

Indonesia Favours “Cooperation” as Tensions Simmer at ASEAN Summit

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE. 9 September 2023 (IDN) — At the just concluded ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) summit in Jakarta, President of Indonesia Joko Widodo pleaded with the world’s big powers to “strengthen cooperation, not sharpen rivalries”.

“I don’t know how many words of peace and stability we utter at every meeting… peace and stability are key to achieving prosperity,” he said at the opening of the East Asia Summit (EAS), which was part of the 43rd ASEAN Summit.

The annual EAS brings together leaders from ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The ASEAN region has increasingly become a stage where China and the US are vying for influence and new alliances are being formed even between old enemies like Vietnam and the US.

Widodo added that countries have equal responsibility not to create “new conflicts, new tensions, new wars” and he reminded them “we also have a responsibility to reduce heated tensions, to melt the frozen atmosphere, to create space for dialogue, to bridge existing differences”.

Unfortunately, China’s release of a map that reiterated its claims to much of the South China Sea and Taiwan became a major talking point just before the Summit, with countries like Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines expressing strong objections as they have competing claims to territories (more so to the sea under the Law of the Sea Convention).

Meanwhile it gave the US (who don’t recognize the Convention) and its allies, particularly Australia, to project themselves as outside powers willing to help ASEAN members being bullied by China.

In 2016, Philippines won a historic victory at arbitration courts in The Hague, which ruled that China’s claims to the seas surrounding the Philippines were invalid. But the then newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte put that decision in the backburner to pursue closer economic relations with China.

Yet, the Philippine strategic elite in the military, foreign affairs and business are believed to be deeply embittered by ASEAN’s lack of support to the international court’s verdict, and the current President Bongbong Marcos has steered the country towards a more US-focused foreign policy.

A month ago, Philippine vessels on a resupply mission to the rusting World War II warship near the Thomas Shaol atoll in the Spratly Islands, were attacked by Chinese coastguard ships using water cannons. As the ASEAN Summit concluded, on 8 September, a China Coast Guard spokesman said that it had warned two Philippine supply ships and two coastguard vessels that had made an “unapproved entry” to the atoll, which it said China had “indisputable sovereignty” over.

South China Sea

Thomas Shoal is controlled by Manila but also claimed by Beijing, Taipei and Hanoi. The Philippines call the area West Philippine Sea, though Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands.

“The Philippines firmly reject misleading narratives that frame the disputes in the South China Sea solely through the lens of strategic competition between two powerful countries,” Marcos said during his intervention following Widodo’s remarks about proxy wars. “This not only denies us of our independence and agency, but also disregards our own legitimate interests.”

Earlier, Widodo warned that ASEAN will not become “a proxy for any power”, and will cooperate with anyone willing to promote peace and prosperity in the region. In his closing remarks, he talked about establishing the region as “a theater of peace and inclusiveness”.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told South China Morning Post (SCMP) that Marcos’s comments may have been in response to some domestic chatter that his closeness to the US is causing more issues between the Philippines and China, and consequently, in the South China Sea.

“Marcos might be responding to the narrative that recent incidents were a result of the US prodding the Philippines,” Koh said. “He might have also wanted more concrete discussions on the South China Sea issues, for the possibility that the Philippines might be able to draw on ASEAN as a source of support.”

Despite Biden’s absence, the US was well-prepared to use the South China Sea issue to woo allies and contain China, Zhuang Guotu, head of Xiamen University’s Southeast Asian Studies Center, noted in an interview with China’s Global Times on 7 September. “Most ASEAN countries want to coordinate with China on the South China Sea issue, but the U.S has recently tried to further draw members of ASEAN to counter China by hyping up the ten-dash line on the Chinese map”.

A Code of Conduct for the South China Sea between China and ASEAN members, has been on the drawing board for over decades with China claiming that the US and its allies are blocking it, while some in the ASEAN region claim that China wants to dictate the terms of the agreement.

Support for Regional Cohesion

The US and China are locked in an epic, dangerous rivalry that treats Southeast Asia as a battleground, notes Michael Vatikiotis, who is a Singapore-based senior adviser at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva. Writing in Japan’s Nikkei Asia, he argues that midsized powers and traditional partners such as Australia, the EU and UK could support regional cohesion if they spent less time pushing Western values and seeding animosity toward China.

“As things stand today, there is a real chance that the Philippines and China will come to blows over the Thomas Shoal. That would bring the US and China dangerously close to war” he warns, noting pessimism on whether ASEAN leaders be able to combine and collaborate to prevent any crisis from escalating.

The Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and United States signed in 1951 still stands, and the treaty has eight articles and requires both nations to support each other if another party attacked.

Indonesia noted in a statement that concerns were expressed by some ASEAN member states on the land reclamations (by China) and other “serious activities” in the region. The territorial issue has been simmering for years, and ASEAN leaders have tried to compile a code of conduct with China aimed at avoiding conflict. But, as Vatikiotis notes, “Indonesia’s statement on the issue was vague, mentioning only that the bloc looked forward to an early conclusion of an effective and substantive agreement in accordance with international law”.

Speaking in Jakarta on 5 September, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim reiterated his country’s position in light of China’s new “standard” map. He stressed the issues “must be managed in a peaceful and rational way through dialogue and consultation” in accordance with international law.

On 2 September, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi in a video addressed to a Jakarta think tank,  Foreign Policy community of Indonesia, warned ASEAN countries not to allow themselves become pawns of “individual external forces” that are held bent on “sowing discord” within ASEAN

But, Maria Siow, Senior Correspondent at SCMP’s Asia desk argued in a column that China needs to refrain from exhorting countries in its neighbourhood to avoid “foreign power interference”, especially when its actions have pushed its neighbours to embrace such “interference” in the first place.

“China’s constant reminder to regional countries to avoid ‘foreign power interference’ is condescending as it suggests that nations, especially smaller ones, are unable to determine their own national interests,” argues Siow. “And besides, Beijing cannot be unaware that its own actions have played a major role in regional countries not shunning, or even welcoming such foreign interference.”

Pointing out China’s release of a new map that claimed soverignty over about 90 per cent of the South China Sea, she noted, “the move likely convinced many in these countries that reaching out to ‘foreign powers’ was essential in countering Chinese aggression in the region and in ensuring their own security”. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo source: ASEAN Indonesia 2023

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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