MANILA, Philippines – The only way the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can stand up to Asian giant China is if member nations take a "common stand" on the dispute in the South China Sea.
This is what Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo emphasized in the lead-up to the ASEAN Leaders' Summit in the Philippines on Saturday, April 29.
"South China Sea is one of the issues that we need to solve immediately. In the previous meetings, there are still differences between ASEAN member states," he said in an interview on ANC aired on Friday.
"I think we need to have a common stand. The most important is that ASEAN internally needs to have a mutual agreement on this issue," he added.
He said while the dialogue between ASEAN and China is essential to build confidence among member nations, the ASEAN can only engage China in a dialogue after it has has agreed on a common position on the South China Sea issue.
"Then and only then can we communicate with China," Jokowi said.
For decades, competing claims to the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea in the Philippines) have been a source of tension in the region. China and Taiwan both claim nearly all of the sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei each have overlapping claims to parts of it.
The 10-member ASEAN and China signed a non-binding Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea in 2002 to discourage hostile acts. While all sides agreed not to use threats or force to assert claims, China has built artificial islands in the disputed areas, some with runways. (READ: IN PHOTOS: The China build-up)
China, which prefers bilateral discussions with claimant countries on the dispute, has since refused to turn it into a legally binding Code of Conduct.
The dispute has caused deep divisions within ASEAN, which normally seeks to operate on a basis of consensus among its members. In the past, particularly under the administration of then president Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines had pushed for a tough ASEAN stance against China. But Chinese allies Laos and Cambodia have been widely seen to block such moves.
The Philippines filed a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2013, becoming the first and only country to legally challenge China's claims. The Hague ruling sided with the Philippines.
In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he will avoid discussing the landmark Philippine victory over China at the ASEAN summit. Like China, he prefers bilateral discussions with the regional giant.
Duterte, who is hosting the summit because of the Philippines' chairmanship of ASEAN this year, will make key decisions on the ASEAN chairman's statement and other outcome documents.
While Jokowi was categorical in his opinion on a united message, he refused to say whether Duterte’s strategy towards China is harmful to ASEAN.
"Every country has a different policy,” Jokowi said. “I think that President Duterte has decided on his policy for the Philippines. In Indonesia, we also have our own policy. We cannot have the same policy for all countries."
In Indonesia, a show of force has been Jokowi's policy. (READ: Indonesia opens fire on Chinese boat, defends decision)
Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels have been embroiled in repeated confrontations with Indonesian patrol boats and navy ships in waters around the Natunas this year, sharply raising tensions between Jakarta and Beijing.
Indonesia is bolstering its defenses around the Natunas – a remote scattering of islands that is home to rich fishing grounds – and plans to deploy extra warships, fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.
Unlike some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, Jakarta has long maintained it has no maritime disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea and does not contest ownership of reefs or islets there.
But Beijing's expansive claims in the sea overlap Indonesia's exclusive economic zone – waters where a state has the right to exploit resources – around the Natunas. (READ: China angry after Indonesia fights back, seizes Chinese fishing boat)
Jokowi also said there are things that can be done that will strengthen the ASEAN while the South China Sea issue is still being resolved. He said that while a binding Code of Conduct is important, this is "just a process towards an agreement." The Code of Conduct, which ASEAN hopes to finish this year, will lay down guidelines on how claimant countries will deal with the dispute.
"In my opinion, it is more important to have building blocks in this transition period, by implementing joint maritime infrastructure as well as joint research in the marine resources in the South China Sea and even joint patrols, or we can develop fisheries together," he said. "This is something more concrete, real and important."
One of these immediate partnerships between the Philippines and Indonesia comes in the form of the Roll-on Roll-off (RoRo) ferry service from Davao to Bitung, Manado, to be launched on Sunday.
"This will start an integration of maritime infrastructure in ASEAN," said Jokowi, adding it will "make it easier for export and import processes."
“It will also make it easier for transportation and logistics. Hence, the relations between Indonesia and the Philippines will improve.”
He said this will also pave the way for setting up a joint patrol between Indonesia and the Philippines.
“This is also an initial partnership that is concrete, real, from Davao to Bitung,” he said.
Jokowi said he is open to welcoming more skilled Filipino workers to Indonesia since the RoRo service provides easier travel between the two countries.
“I think it is possible to simplify the processes. In terms of licensing, the process of tourist arrival, the processes of labor early among ASEAN countries, I think these are the things that we will be discussing in the ASEAN Summit,” he said. – Rappler.com