Dialogue on Asean-China code of conduct 'needs to start now'

INDONESIA'S Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says incidents like Tuesday's show of force by the Chinese navy near Malaysia and Brunei highlight the need for Asean and China to come up with standards for behaviour in disputed waters.

Asean and China have yet to start formal talks on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that would calm tensions in such events, but Asean members agreed on its elements last year.

"Now we are at the juncture when Asean must have a conversation with China on the elements and on the draft code of conduct itself," he told The Straits Times in an interview while on a one-day visit to Singapore.

"The core issue will not be resolved overnight," he added, saying there should, however, be some basic norms so incidents do not end up escalating.

The latest display by China comes weeks before Asean foreign ministers are due to meet in Brunei on April 10, ahead of a leaders' summit two weeks later.

On Tuesday, a naval task force including four Chinese warships turned up near James Shoal, 1,800km from China's mainland, 80km off Malaysia's coast and 200km off Brunei's. They were at the southernmost tip of a nine-dash line used by Beijing to stake its territorial claims, and their crew pledged to "maintain national sovereignty".

While Dr Marty philosophically noted that such challenges would always crop up, he said it was crucial that they are managed calmly.

Recent tensions between China and Japan, and the two Koreas, also worry him, and he hopes all of East Asia can be "Asean-ised".

By this, he means that while countries in South-east Asia have unresolved territorial issues between them, "the idea of open conflict among us is now beginning to be seen as unthinkable".

And should aberrant clashes occur, as on the Thai-Cambodian border two years ago, "All of us jumped into the fray to say: 'Look, this is not the Asean way of conducting things'."

"We need to have a similar sense of community, sense of outlook among East Asian countries," he said. It would also ensure that as they upgrade their militaries, they can build trust.

Last week, Indonesian navy chief Admiral Marsetio called for joint drills between Asean militaries and countries like China, a move Dr Marty said would help tackle such problems as natural disasters while building confidence between countries.

He also seeks to revitalise the Asean Regional Forum - set up in 1993 to discuss peace and security issues - to include a crisis hotline so countries can respond urgently to troubling incidents.

"When crises happen, that's a time when phones need to be ringing, not when things are cut off," he said, referring to North Korea cutting off its military hotline with the South.

This need for ongoing diplomacy and dialogue, he emphasises, is what the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea is also about. It is also why he now wants to propose a regionwide treaty like the one Asean's founders signed in 1976 to pledge peace and cooperation.

"It was a South-east Asia that was still very much divided," he said. "And yet that did not stop us having this treaty-based commitment to resolve and address problems among us in a peaceful manner."

Dr Marty also called on Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday. The two men discussed bilateral cooperation and preparations for the Singapore-Indonesia Leaders' Retreat next month, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

zakirh@sph.com.sg