Foreign Minister Natalegawa Out Front in Regional Mediation
Indonesia is distinguishing itself as a voice of moderation and mediation in the troubled waters of the South China Sea.
Even as the rival territorial claims over the sea was splitting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia last month, Indonesia refused to quit acting as a mediator.
“The Indonesians have taken it upon themselves in a way that is a little unusual,” a senior U.S. official told reporters during the ASEAN meeting in Phnom Penh.
“Usually that process is always left to the chair. Indonesia is working very constructively behind the scenes to try to rally consensus,” the U.S. official said. “And Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton, in her meeting with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, thanked him for that and encouraged that process to continue.”
ASEAN’s failure to agree on a unified statement for the first time in its history was “utterly irresponsible,” Natalegawa said. But he quickly regrouped, hitting the diplomatic road to keep the association from fracturing even further.
He said says the impasse over the South China Sea is an exception.
“It is not the rule. And let’s keep it that way. Let’s keep it as an exception,” he says. “ASEAN continues to remain united, to be cohesive on all issues of common concern, not least, and especially on the issue of the South China Sea.”
Indonesia presses for regional solution
Across Southeast Asia, Natalegawa continues to push a regional framework to resolve rival claims over the 3.5-million-square kilometer sea.
“We do actually need a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea,” he says. “Some kind of rule-of-the-road type of regime so the potential for conflicts in the region can be managed and, even more, betters the potential for conflicts to be resolved so the countries of the region can continue to enjoy the peace dividend that all of us have enjoyed for many decades now.”
As Southeast Asia’s biggest nation, Indonesia’s neutrality is helping sooth some of the maritime tensions between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
“Indonesia certainly has an ambivalence about all of the developments that have taken place,” says Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at Washington’s Cato Institute policy research group. “They really are sort of at the fulcrum of this, trying to remain in the center, wherever the center may be. I imagine that will continue going forward. But their status, I think, has really risen as a result of their diplomacy.”
Logan says Indonesian mediation is especially important with the opening of China’s new Sansha City garrison on an island Beijing calls Yongxing but Hanoi claims as Woody Island.
“There have been many countries that have historically been clustered around the center of ASEAN,” Logan says. “I think there is now a sorting going on where there is a taking-sides process happening. Indonesia has remained the anchor in the center as other countries have more or less drifted away from that center.”
From rival claimants Vietnam and the Philippines to Chinese ally Cambodia, Indonesia is working to bridge those differences.
“You have claimant states that obviously have a deeper ambivalence about China’s growing naval power and about its diplomacy in the region, both economic and otherwise,” Logan says. “And then you have other countries that have benefited tremendously from their relationships with China and are increasingly not inclined to take hard stances diplomatically or otherwise against China.”
China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own, see claim outlined in red, raising tensions with neighboring nations that have claims of their own.
Playing a weak hand
The longer ASEAN fails to resolve South China Sea claims, says Joshua Kurlantzick of U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, the more powerful countries such as Vietnam “are going to opt for other solutions.
“ASEAN has played a relatively weak hand relatively weakly,” Kurlantzick says. “They have, at the same time been able to pragmatically work with China on economic issues over the last 10 years and continue to move forward on regional integration while this dispute has gone on. That does say something about the pragmatism and the thoughtfulness and prioritization of ASEAN countries.”
Analyst Bonnie Glaser at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies says the South China Sea dispute is a major challenge to ASEAN unity, but adds that it might help the group evolve beyond its primarily economic focus.
“Maybe this is a maturation of ASEAN,” Glaser says. “Maybe it shouldn’t be portrayed as a weakening or a demonstration of disunity. Maybe this organization is now beginning to come into its own. So that’s positive.”