Indonesia pioneer seeking ASEAN coordination on the South China Sea disputes this February

Indonesia pioneer seeking ASEAN coordination on the South China Sea disputes this February

Officials from five other Southeast Asian countries have been asked to meet in February to explore a possible coordinated response to China's persistent aggression in the South China Sea.

Vice Adm. Aan Kurnia, the head of Indonesia's Maritime Security Agency (also known as Bakamla), told reporters yesterday that he'd invited counterparts from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam to a meeting in February 2022 to "share experiences and foster brotherhood," according to a report by BenarNews.

In the South China Sea, four of the five nations have unresolved maritime and territorial disputes with China and have felt the brunt of its expanding naval and marine strength. Singapore, the fifth, has a major interest in the protection of free and open international sea lanes, although having no direct territorial interests in the South China Sea.

Over the last decade, the Southeast Asian claimants, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have grown increasingly enraged with China as Beijing asserted sovereignty over disputed regions of the South China Sea and built artificial islands on Spratly Islands features.

Indonesia, which has long maintained that it is not a valid claimant in the South China Sea, has become increasingly the target of these forceful activities. China has dispatched big fishing boats into Indonesia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) near the Natuna islands, which Beijing claims as part of its wide "nine-dash line" maritime claim, for the past five years, often escorted by coast guard and maritime militia vessels. Nearly 60 vessels entered Indonesia's EEZ in December 2019 and January 2020, for example.

In the last months of 2021, the two countries had a low-level standoff over an oil rig prospecting near the Natuna islands in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone. As I reported last month, this resulted winBeijing formally requesting that Jakarta cease oil and gas drilling in the area, a demand that was answered with a firm denial by the Indonesian government, which completed the six-month drilling project last week.

While it is difficult to predict what tangible conclusions the February summit will produce, it is a positive step toward more coordination among Southeast Asian governments in the face of China's challenge in the South China Sea. 

While the numerous Southeast Asian sea-facing countries face similar challenges, their collaboration has been hampered by a lack of coordination and unity, which is a result of both clogged policy making procedures and unresolved maritime and territorial disputes amongst these claimants.

Indonesia's demand for unity might also be interpreted as an acknowledgment of the gravity of China's challenge in the country's EEZ, as well as the country's inability to manage it alone. As a result, it could be the first hint that Indonesian politicians – or at the very least those closest to the situation on the ground in the Natuna region – are waking up to the decade of denial. As a result, these activities will be closely monitored in the months and years ahead.

Fortunately, international law is always an option for those countries. 

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and these countries share a culture of international law. 

Singapore and Malaysia, for example, have requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on issues of sovereignty over marine features. Similarly, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has resolved a sovereignty dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over several islands. 

Myanmar and its neighbor, Bangladesh, went to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to resolve their maritime delimitation disputes (ITLOS). When the Philippines filed a complaint against China before an international arbitral tribunal, it was the first time a lawsuit on the South China Sea disputes was filed.

Source :, Council on Foreign Relations 

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