The Jakarta Post
Every year, 10-nation ASEAN prides itself on being able to convene major powers with interests in Southeast Asia, offering a stage for diplomatic rivalries and geopolitical dynamics to play out.
This year is no different, even though Vietnam as chair of the bloc has had to move the four-day summitry online as a result of the current pandemic.
Among the most contentious of issues on the agenda is the South China Sea dispute, which has become the flashpoint for escalating tensions between the United States and China in the region.
Tensions are simmering over the disputed waters, with the US last month sanctioning 24 Chinese state-owned companies it accused of assisting in Beijing's military buildup in the South China Sea.
This year's ASEAN ministerial meetings also come days after Beijing launched ballistic missiles in the resource-rich waterway as part of live-fire exercises.
But Indonesia and ASEAN in general have continued calls for self-restraint from all sides, so as not to complicate an already tense situation.
In an address to the 10th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US Navy’s recent activity was interfering with consultations between his country and ASEAN members to resolve their dispute.
At the ASEAN-US Ministerial Meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted to galvanize support from his ASEAN counterparts by urging them to stand up to China’s maritime expansion in the waters and reconsider their business relations with Chinese state firms “that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea.”
China claims most of the South China Sea despite the great distance from its coastline, but a 2016 international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China's sweeping claims, which are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China has rejected the ruling and continues to build and militarize artificial islands as part of its claims over the sea, causing anxiety among Southeast Asian nations and giving the US a reason to pick a fight.
In their joint communiqué issued on Thursday evening, a day after convening the 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, ASEAN ministers addressed the South China Sea dispute by reaffirming the importance of maintaining peace security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation.
Wording in the two paragraphs addressing the dispute remained similar to that of the previous year, but the ministers reported progress on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea negotiations, which aims to bring the resulting document in line with international law practices, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“We further reaffirmed the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS,” the ministers said in the joint communiqué.
The joint communiqué is a document containing ASEAN’s common negotiated stance on various issues of regional concern.
The ministers also reaffirmed the importance of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) as the key code of conduct in governing inter-state relations in the region and a foundation for maintaining regional peace and stability.
“We were committed to further promoting the principles embodied in the TAC and emphasized the importance of all high contracting parties in fulfilling their obligations under the Treaty,” they said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has repeatedly stressed the importance of respecting the principles contained in the TAC and the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration, beginning with the EAS meeting and in subsequent ASEAN post-ministerial conferences.
The TAC is a peace treaty that legally binds its signatories to the promotion of regional peace and stability among ASEAN member states and other dialogue partners. It was signed by the leaders of the original member states in 1976, and was followed by later members.
Other countries began signing the treaty – a requirement to enter into a dialogue partnership with ASEAN – in 2003, with China and India being the first countries to do so. The US signed it in 2009.
Meanwhile, ZOPFAN is a Cold War-era ASEAN document that was signed by the association’s five original members – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – in 1971. Nations that have subsequently joined the regional organization have automatically acceded to the agreement. It sought, with delayed success, to remove US and Soviet military bases from the region.
On Thursday at the ASEAN-US meeting, Retno said she brought up these two decades-old ASEAN documents to drive home the point that the bloc was established in the name of peace, stability and prosperity.
“The TAC not only relates to ASEAN but also [...] its dialogue partners, including the United States. Indonesia hopes that cooperation between ASEAN and the United States can continue and it can become a true partner for peace and stability,” she told reporters after the meeting.
Retno spoke more frankly about the issue during the ASEAN-Australia meeting later that day, during which she called for Australia to join ASEAN member states in taking the region away from being “a stage for geopolitical contests”.
“I would also like to point out that Australia acceded to TAC in 2005, in which there are the principles of rejecting the threat and the use of force, a commitment to resolving problems peacefully and continuing to prioritize cooperation,” she told reporters.
“It is hoped that these principles can continue to be applied amid the current geopolitical challenges,” she said.