JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The dispute between the United States and China in the South China Sea continues after China drove the US warship out of the disputed island in the oil-rich waters last Thursday (27 August).
China claimed the ship had entered the Chinese territorial waters in the Xisha Islands—also known as the Paracel islands—illegally. However, the US ignored the rule, justifying its actions in the name of “freedom of navigation” under international law.
While the rivalry between the world’s two economy and military powerhouses in the strategic waters has intensified tensions for the past few months, Indonesia and the rest of Association of Southeast Asia Nation (ASEAN) Member States do not seem to be trapped by the US-China clash.
The US continues to boost its military presence in the South China Sea
A report from South China Morning Post on 18 May indicated that the US Navy had conducted four ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the South China Sea in the first quarter of the year.
The increasing military presence from the US shows how the Washington-Beijing relationship has reached its lowest level due to several disputes, from trade to technology, the US diplomatic failure to solve the dispute with China, and the US’ frustration over China’s stubborn acts.
The South China Sea plays a vital role as the world’s major oil trade route. Almost one-third of global crude oil and half the global natural gas pass through this water every year, US Energy Information Agency said.
Hu Bo, Director of South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI), in his article in The Diplomat, opined that the US’ motives to maintain and expand its military presence in the South China Sea were to prioritise its maritime excellence, freedom of navigation, and security commitment in other regions after the World War II.
Indonesia and ASEAN do not want to be dragged into the rivalry between the world’s superpowers
Three weeks after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his country’s position in the South China Sea, China called 10 ASEAN diplomats to meet and express its concern over ongoing tensions in the disputed area, South China Morning Post reported on 24 August.
“I think it is just China’s strategy to win the hearts of ASEAN member countries, given that the US is becoming more aggressive in the South China Sea in the name of certain ASEAN nations,” international law expert Hikmahanto Juwana told TOC.
ASEAN nations seem to be divided when it comes to the South China Sea. Despite opposing China’s claim, the Philippines refused to participate in a joint military with Washington. Vietnam gained benefits from the US’ opposition to China’s military drill in the sea.
In a press briefing on 13 August, Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Teuku Faizasyah emphasized that Indonesia and other ASEAN member countries would not be trapped in the US-China race.
“What I want to emphasise again is that our Foreign Minister (Ms Retno Marsudi), in context of ASEAN’s anniversary, has pushed the release of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Statement On The Importance of Maintaining Peace and Stability in Southeast Asia,” Mr Teuku said.
Will the ongoing situation trigger an open war?
An interactive map from a US think tank showed how China’s missile could control the South China Sea and reach ASEAN nations such as Indonesia and Vietnam, Forbes reported.
However, Mr Hikmahanto snubbed the threat of Chinese missile, saying that Indonesia has no hostility towards China. Indonesia also frequently prioritises a peaceful solution as a member of ASEAN and a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Further, China leader Xi Jinping does not adopt as hawkish a diplomatic strategy as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who often utilises psychological warfare by testing missiles.
ASEAN must continue negotiations on Code of Conduct (CoC)
International politics expert Alexius Jemadu told CNBC Indonesia that Manila’s protest is the reflection of China’s de facto control that cannot be negotiated, as it is part of China’s ambitious The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—a massive infrastructure project stretching from Asia to Africa.
“Code of Conduct (CoC) only regulates how each country navigates, behaves, without stipulating sovereignty,” Mr Alexius said.
Mr Hikmahanto echoed Mr Alexius’ statement, adding that CoC would only prevent a tension, not regulate and solve overlapping claims.
“We don’t know how effective CoC is. The next question is what about the US, which is outside the region?,” Mr Hikmahanto said, adding that ASEAN countries with overlapping claims over Spratly such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have yet to reach a resolution due to China’s unilateral claim and dominance.
Should the US ratify UNCLOS?
Indonesian maritime international law expert Hasjim Djalal stated that the US, as one of the global superpowers, must ratify the United Nations Convention for Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to solve the South China Sea dispute more easily.
“In my opinion, if the US ratifies the UNCLOS, in which they actively participate in several negotiations, numerous disputes in the South China Sea—not only between the US and China but also with ASEAN member countries—can be solved in a more promising way than now,” the expert spoke in a virtual discussion.
UNCLOS—which was adopted in 1982—is an international treaty concerning law and order in the world’s seas, oceans and their resources.
ASEAN sticks to UNCLOS as a legal basis for rights and sovereignty in the South China Sea in responding to China’s claims.
In July 2016, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected China’s claims based on UNCLOS.
The US has yet to ratify UNCLOS because Republicans in the Senate opposed it, VOA reported.