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Indonesia spearheading regional cooperation in South China Sea

Tom Abke

Indonesia is reaching out to its South China Sea neighbors to foster harmony on maritime sovereignty issues and enhance cooperation among regional coast guards, analysts say. The nation engaged closely with Vietnam in late 2021 and plans to add five countries to the collaborative effort in 2022.

A memorandum of understanding signed by the Vietnam Coast Guard and Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency, known as Bakamla, in December 2021 aims to improve collaboration and support temporary steps to demarcate the two countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), according to Dr. Vijay Sakhuja of New Delhi’s Centre for Public Policy Research.

Additionally, the head of Bakamla has invited his counterparts from four states with territorial claims in the South China Sea — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — as well as Singapore to a coast guards forum in the first quarter of 2022, Sakhuja wrote in a January 10, 2022, article on the center’s website.

Disputes among South China Sea claimants over the extent of their respective EEZs have been going on for decades, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a United States-based think tank. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) sweeping territorial claims and aggressive activities in the South China Sea, including constructing and militarizing artificial features in disputed waters, have raised tensions to crisis levels. An international tribunal dismissed Beijing’s so-called nine-dash line claims as unlawful in 2016.

By settling territorial disputes, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states could bolster their position in forthcoming talks involving Beijing on a South China Sea code of conduct, Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told FORUM.

The proposed code is a long-awaited multilateral agreement to mitigate tensions in the sea, which is rich in natural resources and a strategically vital waterway.

“If some of the ASEAN member states wish to fulfill the original vision of having a unified bloc position vis-à-vis the PRC in the code of conduct negotiations, then intramural unity is the key,” Koh said. “At least the bilateral disputes between the Southeast Asian SCS [South China Sea] parties ought to be ironed out first, and the Indonesia-Vietnam overlapping EEZ boundaries in the SCS being a good example.”

Not only would resolving their EEZ concerns assist Indonesia and Vietnam in addressing issues such as illegal fishing, but it would send a message to Beijing that their governments are committed to protecting their sovereign rights, Dr. Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told FORUM.

The Indonesia-Vietnam agreement covers six priority areas of cooperation for their coast guards: increasing maritime security and safety capacity; regular bilateral meetings; exchanging information and communication; search and rescue operations and crime prevention at sea; port visits; and law enforcement, including eliminating illegal fishing.

Bakamla leader Vice Adm. Aan Kurnia announced the six-country forum with hopes of gaining assistance from other ASEAN coast guards, according to Sakhuja. Attendees will be able to exchange experiences and seek a coordinated response in confronting issues, he wrote.

Such teamwork is vital to countering Beijing’s expansionist agenda in the South China Sea, Koh said. (Pictured: Indonesian Maritime Security Agency vessel KN Tanjung Datu, left, sails alongside U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Stratton during joint exercises in the Singapore Strait in August 2019.)

“Given the SCS situation is more precarious with evidently rising incidences of Beijing’s use of maritime coercion over the past two years, it has become more urgent for individual ASEAN parties in the SCS to not just work alone, but to cooperate with each other,” he said.

Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.


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