Indonesia can 'mediate in South China Sea row if needed'

It will also keep pressing for swift action on Code of Conduct: Jokowi

PRESIDENT-ELECT Joko Widodo says Indonesia is ready to act as an intermediary between claimants to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea if necessary, in one of his first comments on foreign policy since being declared the winner of the presidential election late last month.

"We reject solutions through military power," Mr Joko told Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun in an interview on Monday, saying Jakarta would continue to press for the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct (COC) that Asean countries are seeking with China to manage tensions.

His comments, published yesterday, came as visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called on him and as Asean foreign ministers called for progress on the COC at their meeting in Myanmar over the weekend.

Mr Joko's remarks suggest that his government will continue with efforts by outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's administration to play a greater role in fostering regional stability.

China's claims to territories in the South China Sea overlap in part those of four Asean countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and tensions in recent months lent the issue a sharp focus at meetings between Asean foreign ministers and their dialogue partners in Naypyitaw.

Yesterday, Mr Kishida and Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa continued the talks. Dr Marty told reporters Indonesia welcomed Japan's proactive role in pushing for peace in the region.

Tokyo's recent push for "proactive peace" under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has drawn criticism from Beijing, which appears to see it as a bid at remilitarisation. 

But Dr Marty said Japan's call was, at its core, about three principles: the primacy of international law, peaceful settlement of disputes, and non-use of force.

"These are in line with our principles all along," he added.

Dr Marty also felt discussions in Myanmar on a moratorium - the United States had proposed a halt to activity in the disputed areas - had a silver lining, in that China said it would speed up agreement on the COC. Several Asean members feel Beijing has been dragging its feet on the code. Dr Marty said the South China Sea issue was a test case on whether Asean can manage the security situation in its neighbourhood.

The two ministers also announced a deal on visa-free travel for their citizens to boost ties.

But substantial change may be slow in coming. 

Mr Joko displayed caution in his remarks to Asahi; when asked how Indonesia would cooperate with Japan on security, he said he would study what was possible, and such cooperation was important for peace and prosperity.

In his meeting with Mr Kishida, Mr Joko said he welcomed more investment from Japan, but hoped it would focus on infrastructure, such as deep sea ports.

Dr Rizal Sukma, executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said he believed Mr Joko "will want a more substantive and sustained role for Indonesia in the South China Sea" as part of his plan to turn the country into a global maritime fulcrum.

"Maritime diplomacy will be high on his agenda, and that includes an active role in maintaining good order at sea, including in finding solutions to maritime disputes and tension," he added.