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Indonesia steps in to mediate South China sea dispute

Publication Date : 18-07-2012


Four Asean claimant nations should seek to contain issue, says Indonesian president


Appealing for calm over the South China Sea disputes, Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has dispatched his foreign minister to several Asean capitals to search for a consensus on the way forward to deal with the issue, particularly with China.

He said yesterday that the four Asean countries with claims should seek to contain the issue and prevent it from escalating into violence.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia all have claims to territories in the disputed seas, as do China and Taiwan.

"Short of a comprehensive resolution, the claimants must do their best to manage and contain the disputes, to make sure that it does not escalate or worse, lead to the outbreak of military clashes, as has happened in the past," said Dr Yudhoyono in a speech at the launch of Indonesian policy journal Strategic Review.

The president, whose country chaired the Asean Summit last year, was referring to military clashes between Cambodia and Thailand in 2011, before Indonesia mediated a ceasefire.

Dr Yudhoyono on Monday rejected suggestions that Asean had broken apart and was no longer united, saying he was "disappointed and really concerned (that) this could lead to misperceptions or false representations of Asean".

He was clearly referring to last week's Asean meeting in Phnom Penh that ended in failure after foreign ministers of the bloc failed to reach a consensus and did not issue a joint communique on how to go forward on the South China Sea issue. It was the first time in the bloc's history that a joint communique was not released following a major meeting.

China claims all of the South China Sea within a huge, looping "nine-dashed" line that dates back to maps of the 1940s.

Temperatures in the area rose recently as maritime forces from the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as China, beefed up their presence in the disputed area.

The lack of success at last week's Asean meetings means that attempts to work at issuing a code of conduct between Asean and China have stalled, and this has left observers concerned that escalating tensions may spark a military conflict.

There are also concerns about Asean's unity, allowing big players in the region, such as China and the United States, to set the agenda for diplomatic relations.

Indonesia, one of the founding members of the 10-member Asean grouping, was credited with cooling conflicts in the Preah Vihear temple area between Cambodia and Thailand, and has also been praised for its commitment to lay out a roadmap to soothe tensions in the South China Sea.

"The countries in the region should help the claimants manage their disputes and keep the temperature low," said Dr Yudhoyono.

Citing how peace in once conflict-ridden Aceh was achieved, he added: "Finding the ingredients for peace takes a lot of listening... rather than talking past one another."

Yesterday, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa flew to the Philippines to start his meetings with Asean states to seek a way forward and build consensus. "Staying idle and doing nothing would create a much greater risk," he told reporters.

He is expected to head to Hanoi, then to Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur before meeting his Singapore counterpart.

Through Dr Marty, Indonesia has been playing an active role to alleviate tensions. He drafted 18 different versions of the statement in a desperate effort to appease both Cambodia and states with claims such as the Philippines and Vietnam, said a Reuters report, quoting a diplomat.

Asean analyst Bantarto Bandoro of the Indonesian Defence University said: "Indonesia is rebuilding its image as one of the most important actors in the region and to show its regional commitment to stability. Its confidence has been raised by the praise it received from the chairmanship of Asean last year, and it sees itself as being able to mediate and play a neutral role as it is not a claimant state."

Analysts also credit Indonesia, whose economy makes up nearly 50 per cent of Asean's economy, with helping Myanmar democratise during its chairing of Asean last year.


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