In Letter to UN Chief, Indonesia Takes Stand on South China Sea

Ika Inggas and John Bechtel
200528-ID-scs-620.jpg Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo inspects troops during his visit to the Natuna islands bordering the South China Sea, Jan. 8, 2020.
AFP/Presidential Palace

Updated at 7:13 p.m. ET on 2020-05-28

Indonesia added its weight to recent diplomatic moves by ASEAN members opposing Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, sending a rare diplomatic note to the head of the United Nations earlier this week.

The letter, sent to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Tuesday, spelled out the Indonesian government’s support for a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, when the court sided with the Philippines in a case that Manila brought against China over a territorial dispute in the sea.

“Indonesia reiterates that the Nine-Dash line map implying historic rights claim clearly lacks international legal basis and is tantamount to upset UNCLOS 1982,” said the letter from Indonesia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, referring to a boundary on Chinese maps that encompasses Beijing’s claims in the maritime region.

“As a State Party to UNCLOS 1982, Indonesia has consistently called for the full compliance toward international law, including UNCLOS 1982. Indonesia hereby declares that it is not bound by any claims made in contravention to international law, including UNCLOS 1982,” the letter stated.

The letter, parts of which were posted to Twitter by Sidhant Sibal, a reporter for the WION news website, referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the international treaty adopted nearly 40 years ago. WION and included portions of the letter in their reports on this issue.

On Thursday, a diplomat at Indonesia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York referred BenarNews requests for comments or a copy of the letter to the foreign ministry in Jakarta.

When BenarNews contacted him earlier in the day about the letter, a foreign ministry spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, said “I’ll check it first.”

In Washington, Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said Indonesia’s action broke new ground.

“This note verbale is the first time that any of the Philippines’ Southeast Asian neighbors has stood up and explicitly endorsed its 2016 arbitration win against China. Officials in Jakarta have been pushing this for four years and it looks like they’ve finally won out over political fears about China,” he told BenarNews.

“If this, or more likely the next, Philippine government ever wants to take up the cause again, Indonesian support could be an important part of building a coalition.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who took power days before the Permanent Court ruled in favor of his country’s claim to the contested waterway, has instead sought closer ties with China.

The Indonesian letter is the latest in a flurry of letters from ASEAN countries and China following a Malaysian submission to the U.N. in December 2019 that claimed sovereignty over an extended continental shelf in the South China Sea off its northern coast, potentially an area with significant undersea resources.

“It is our sovereign right to claim whatever is there within our waters and which is not claimed by others,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, who was Malaysia’s foreign minister at the time the letter was filed.

The letter drew a response from China, which asserted sole sovereignty over the South China Sea, based not just on its claims to land features, but also on the basis of “historic rights” to the waters themselves.

The Philippines and Vietnam weighed in, submitting protests to China’s territorial claims. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam are among countries that, along with China, have competing claims in the South China Sea. Indonesia is not among the claimant countries, but in early 2020 and in 2016, tensions flared between Jakarta and Beijing over the presence of Chinese fishing boats swarming in South China Sea waters near Indonesia’s Natuna Islands.

In 2002, the 10-nation ASEAN bloc and China agreed on a Declaration of Conduct, which was a statement of principles on how parties should behave in the South China Sea. But completing a more detailed – and binding – Code of Conduct (CoC) has proved much harder.

Negotiations began in earnest in 2016 with a tentative deadline for acceptance in 2021. A draft of the text of the agreement has been released.

Observers have said that Beijing would like to end negotiations early without touching basic but contentious sections including what it actually claims in the sea region.

“China could, by forcing an early resolution to the Code of Conduct, just shut everybody up,” Carl Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales, told BenarNews in April. “Sorry, we closed the door, we can’t change anything, what we occupy is China’s and you relinquish it.”

Retno Marsudi statement

Earlier this month, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi issued a statement saying her government was closely following recent developments in the sea region.

“Indonesia expresses its concerns on recent activities in the South China Sea which may potentially escalate tensions at a time where global collective efforts are vital in fighting COVID-19” she said during a speech on May 6.

“Indonesia underlines the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea including to ensure freedom of navigation and over-flight and to urge all parties to respect international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Retno added.

She also noted that while CoC negotiations had been delayed, all relevant countries should show self-restraint.

“We remain committed to ensuring the conclusion of the CoC that is effective, substantive, and actionable, despite the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta contributed to this report.


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