Jakarta must keep S.China Sea neutrality

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-26 22:48:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo touched a nerve during a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Japan, saying his country "stands ready to play an intermediary role" in the South China Sea issue. Will this remark, which was made by the next leader of the largest ASEAN member state, give an impetus to ease down the flaring tensions or put the stakeholders in this area off the scent?

Widodo's stance on this matter is not something stunningly new. Indonesia, a natural leader of ASEAN, does not engage in sovereignty disputes with China in the South China Sea, except for some controversies in terms of maritime demarcation.

Taking advantages of its regional leadership and detachment from regional conflicts, Indonesia keeps ramping up efforts to play a constructive and positive role of addressing the South China Sea disputes.

Since the 1990s, Jakarta has been calling for talks among all claimants to explore the possibility of a new solution to these disputes. However, its attempts have not worked well, as sovereignty issues can only be dealt with in a bilateral mechanism instead of a multilateral one.

Widodo's words throw out an important question: How will Indonesia get further involved in the South China Sea issue?

Widodo specified his ideas in that interview, saying he would urge China and ASEAN countries to agree on a code of conduct (COC) over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and stressed that Indonesia would not seek military solutions.

It is widely known that ASEAN always responds proactively to the COC, but China, according to some international public opinion, is depicted as a troublemaker attempting to change the status quo of this region.

Given such circumstances, Widodo's remarks are tending to align with the requirements of these ASEAN claimants and the West, especially the US, on the South China Sea issue.

Widodo will not assume the office until October, and his foreign policy has yet to be articulated. Therefore, it is still too early to judge whether Indonesia will truly remain neutral as a real "mediator" as Widodo claimed on the matter of the South China Sea.

It must be noted that earlier this month at the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has officially called for addressing the daunting disputes through a "dual-track" approach, namely that relevant disputes must be addressed by countries directly concerned through friendly consultations and negotiations and in a peaceful way, and peace and stability in the South China Sea must be jointly maintained by China and ASEAN countries.

China has sent out a signal that ASEAN is welcome to play a bigger role over this issue. In such circumstances, Indonesia should take the opportunity to reinforce cooperation with China to safeguard regional peace and stability.

China's bottom line on the South China Sea disputes is that sovereignty issues must be resolved through direct and bilateral negotiations, and external forces such as the US and Japan should be excluded.

China will appreciate ASEAN's, especially Indonesia's, efforts to maintain regional peace and stability, such as promoting the agreement over the COC. But if their actions, as a matter of fact, instigate other claimants to throw themselves into more provocations, they will be cold shouldered by China.

Indonesia's involvement into the South China Sea issue, if without an independent voice for the public good of the whole region, will not get China's approval.

The Sino-Indonesian relationship is a major component of the big picture of Sino-ASEAN relations. During a State visit to Indonesia in October 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed establishing a China-ASEAN community of shared destiny.

It is expected that Indonesia will act more constructively in the South China Sea, but the regional disputes cannot serve as a determinant of the future of the Sino-Indonesia relations.

Widodo's proposal has also reminded China that the South China Sea disputes cannot be shelved infinitely. Tensions can subside, but if the root causes are not uprooted, this region will continue to be the source of provocations, and some countries will not cease to make it become an international issue. Then China will be kept at bay.

Wang's "dual-track" approach has pointed a direction of China's policy, but Beijing needs to bring forth more innovative ideas to improve its policy.

The author is an associate research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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