AS we await the International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas’ (ITLOS) decision on our case set before it, we must remember that the totality of the issues that beset us in the West Philippine Sea will not be decided by the ITLOs while we also avoid the trap of investing all our options in that course alone. In order for our other pursued efforts to help ease tensions, encourage collaboration amongst all claimants, and contribute towards the long-term management and resolutions of our issues, we need to partner with ASEAN, so that our actions stick and become rooted over a longer time period than the fluctuations of our six-year presidential administrations.
In this, two strategies we should take are to: draft our own COC in ASEAN and employ Indonesia as an honest broker in negotiations.
Draft a COC and take active measures to ease tensions
ASEAN must draft its own Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and then employ international pressure to make China sign the draft and, if not, amend it. “Only an earnest implementation of the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) and advancement of the COC point to the right strategy,” writes scholar Zhai Kun in “Who Makes Rules on the Chessboard of the South China Sea?” Indeed, we must not allow the COC drafting to stall. Most important, in this, we must move our talks from being process-driven to being outcome-oriented, for it is China that has the more effective long-term strategy. We must use the urgency and clamor that has been heating up the South China Sea disputes to our advantage in achieving outcomes. The general progression shows China inching its way toward greater and greater effective control of the areas, a process we must retard through action, not by allowing China to buy more time to drag out deliberations and stall negotiations.
More important, the time to press ASEAN and China toward concluding a COC is now. In the December 2014 position paper that the PRC circulated in response to the Philippines’ submission to the ITLOS, the Chinese government stated:
“At present, in order to maintain stability in the region and create conditions for peaceful resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea, China and the ASEAN member States have established working mechanisms to effectively implement the DOC, and have been engaged in consultations regarding the ‘Code of Conduct in the South China Sea’. By initiating compulsory arbitration at this moment, the Philippines is running counter to the common wish and joint efforts of China and the ASEAN member States. Its underlying goal is not, as the Philippines has proclaimed, to seek peaceful settlement of the South China Sea issue, but rather, by resorting to arbitration, to put political pressure on China, so as to deny China’s lawful rights in the South China Sea through the so-called ‘interpretation or application’ of the Convention, and to pursue a resolution of the South China Sea issue on its own terms. This is certainly unacceptable to China.”
We must use this opening now to press China to agree to a COC, citing its stated wish to conclude and use this code.
Reaffirming the prevailing principle of ‘non-use of force’ that guides and appears in ASEAN-China joint documents and agreements, the Philippines should additionally press all claimants in the South China Sea to adopt practical measures to ease tensions and avoid military conflict.
Employ Indonesia as an honest broker
As the largest archipelagic nation-state in the world, Indonesia will find the upholding of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea vital. It is in this vein and in support of Indonesia’s desire to become a regional leader that ASEAN can enlist Indonesia as an honest broker in the conclusion of the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea, helping to craft a model for dispute settlement that will also ensure the future security of Indonesia whose geography lends itself to such conflicts. As Zhao Hong notes in Trends in Southeast Asia, in the presidential campaigns, Jokowi came to echo the Indonesian foreign ministry’s line when he began affirming his desire to see Indonesia play the role of ‘honest broker’ in the South China Sea disputes. Moreover, Indonesia has reservations over external powers’ role in the regional security architecture; however, it has moved position, now coming to support the presence of US Marines in Australia, with Foreign Minister Marty Natelagawa rejecting China’s view that the US should not involve itself in the South China Sea dispute. Yet, Indonesia’s support of the US’s presence is limited.
According to Zhao Hong, Jokowi’s maritime policy has also “presented opportunities for Beijing to consolidate security ties with Indonesia which eyes China’s robust military industry as a potential future partner.” He writes that, “although initially reluctant to engage with China, Indonesia has forged closer bilateral relations between the two countries, culminating in the signing of a strategic partnership in 2005, which was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Jakarta in 2013, and has also encouraged Beijing’s close relations with ASEAN.”
In this way, with Indonesia’s economic relations with the US and ambitions to be a regional leader despite its recurring domestic impediments and underperformance (relative to its potential), the South China Sea dispute presents the perfect opportunity for Indonesia to take on a serious regional role, one it can effect with credibility and impartiality, while keeping an eye toward ensuring that ASEAN centrality is upheld, with no great power’s national aims achieving preponderance in the conclusion of the disputes.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.