JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Several non-claimant countries—both from ASEAN and outside the bloc—sent note verbales or unsigned diplomatic notes to the United Nations (UN) opposing China’s claim over the disputed South China Sea, according to Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In a virtual press briefing on Friday (23 October), the ministry’s Director-General of International Law and Treaty Damos Dumoli Agusman stated that the protest reflected the opposition of the law of the sea (UNCLOS) violation.
The protest raises questions about the fate of the waters’ Code of Conduct (CoC)—a set of rules drafting guidelines and responsibilities, and practices for institutions and individuals.
The US and India—both are non-claimants in the oil-rich water—called for a negotiation on the South China Sea’s CoC involving China and ASEAN to stick with the international law, Benar News reported.
The long and bumpy road of the CoC negotiation
The sea’s code of conduct has been the main focus of Southeast Asia nations and China for more than two decades. However, regional security experts cast doubt over China’s sincere willingness to negotiate it as several countries often complain about China’s military drill would harm the negotiation effort.
After lengthy negotiations, ASEAN member countries and China signed a document called Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in Cambodia in November 2002.
However, the document has yet to fulfil its mission to build mutual trust among countries involved in the South China Sea spat aimed at preventing the conflict from going further.
The DOC only functions to provide morale guidelines for the related parties.
Nevertheless, the DOC at least serves as a reference in case tensions erupt. Also, the dossier is a foundation for negotiations related to the arrangement of the Code of Conduct (CoC) documents.
In the ASEAN-China meeting in 2018, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang suggested that they should wrap up the code negotiation in 2021. In 2019, ASEAN and China agreed on the first reading of the CoC.
“The CoC is not binding. Later, the code only regulates how to prevent further confrontation. It does not stipulate overlapping claims,” Prof Hikmahanto Juwana, an international relations expert, told TOC last September.
Should ASEAN member countries resolve their disputes?
Several ASEAN member countries—namely Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines—have their maritime disputes over the Spratly Islands-which China also claims.
Prof Arry Bainus, an international relations expert at Bandung’s Padjajaran University, said that ASEAN member countries could settle their disputes whether it is through a bilateral or multilateral meeting.
“They have their experiences (in resolving the dispute) like Indonesia and Malaysia. Maybe, Malaysia prefers the dispute to be settled through the international court. Still, we have a traumatic story about that (citing the Sipadang-Ligitan case),” the professor tod TOC, just a few days before the final debate between the US presidential candidates.
However, most countries tend to leave the disputed area under the status quo, aimed at avoiding further conflict and the loss of an island, Arry added.
“Again, Indonesia and Malaysia also have several “border disputes”. But we just let it under the status quo. Another example can be Kashmir. It is different from Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan as the conflict has been for over 30 years, and now they are fighting again,” he explained.