Every year, 10 countries ASEAN amassing major powers with interests in Southeast Asia, offering the stage for diplomatic competition and geopolitical dynamics.
The same is the case this year. Even though Vietnam as the head of the bloc has to hold the four-day meeting virtually as a result of the covid-19 pandemic which is still spreading at this time.
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According to the Jakarta Post, Saturday (12/9), tensions in the South China Sea have escalated, with the US last month sanctioning 24 Chinese-owned companies accused of assisting in Beijing’s military construction in the South China Sea.
This year’s ASEAN ministerial meeting also comes days after Beijing launched a ballistic missile over the resource-rich waterway as part of a live fire exercise.
However, Indonesia and ASEAN in general continue to call for restraint from all parties, so as not to complicate an already tense situation.
In a speech at the 10th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (EAS) on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the US Navy’s recent activities disrupted consultations between his country and ASEAN members to resolve their dispute.
At the ASEAN-US Ministerial Meeting on Thursday (10/9), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to garner support from his ASEAN colleagues.
He urged them to oppose China’s maritime expansion in waters and reconsider their business relationship with Chinese state companies “that bully ASEAN coastal states in the South China Sea.”
China claims the South China Sea even though it is very far from its coastline.
But an international court in 2016 ruled in favor of the Philippines and dropped claims of China’s sweeping, which are disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China has rejected the decision and continues to build and militarize artificial islands as part of its claims to the region, causing anxiety among Southeast Asian countries and giving the US reason to fight.
In a joint communique issued on Thursday evening, a day after the 53rd ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, ASEAN ministers discussed the South China Sea dispute by reiterating the importance of maintaining peace security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation.
The wording in the two paragraphs dealing with the dispute remains the same as the previous year, but ministers report on progress on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea negotiations.
It aims to bring the resulting documents in line with international legal practice, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
“We further reaffirm the need to pursue peaceful dispute resolution in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS,” said para.
ministers in joint communication.
The joint communique is a document containing the attitude of ASEAN joint negotiations on various issues of regional concern.
The ministers also reiterated the importance of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) as the main code of ethics in regulating relations between countries in the region and a foundation for maintaining regional peace and stability.
“We are committed to further promoting the principles contained in the TAC and emphasizing the high importance of all contract parties in fulfilling their obligations under the Agreement,” they said.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has repeatedly emphasized the importance of respecting the principles contained in the TAC and the Zone Declaration of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), starting with the EAS meeting and the subsequent ASEAN post-ministerial conference.
The TAC is a peace treaty that is legally binding on its signatories to promote regional peace and stability among ASEAN member countries and other dialogue partners.
It was signed by the leaders of the original member states in 1976, and was followed by members later.
Other countries began signing the agreement, a condition for entering into a dialogue partnership with ASEAN – in 2003, with China and India being the first countries to do so.
The US signed it in 2009.
The ZOPFAN is a Cold War era ASEAN document signed by the five original members of the association – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – in 1971.
Nations that then join regional organizations automatically agree to the treaty.
It attempted, with delayed success, to remove US and Soviet military bases from the region.
On Thursday at the ASEAN-US meeting, Retno said she put forward these two decades of ASEAN documents to make the point that the bloc was founded in the name of peace, stability and prosperity.
“TAC is not only related to ASEAN but also its speech partners, including the United States.”
“Indonesia hopes for cooperation between ASEAN and the United States can go on and be a true partner for peace and stability, “he told reporters after the meeting.
Retno openly talked about the matter during the meeting ASEAN–Australia on that day, where he called Australia to join member states ASEAN in taking the region off the “stage for geopolitical contests”.
“I also want to show that Australia “approved the TAC in 2005, under the principle of rejecting threats and the use of force, a commitment to solving problems peacefully and continuing to prioritize cooperation,” he told reporters.
“These principles are expected to continue to be applied amidst the current geopolitical challenges,” he said.