Our Head of ASEAN Studies Program, A Ibrahim Almuttaqi was quoted in The Jakarta Post's on 'ASEAN closes ranks over South China Sea dispute.' Read below for the full article:

ASEAN closes ranks over South China Sea dispute

China's new envoy to ASEAN has arrived in Jakarta facing growing pressure from the increasingly vigilant bloc as its top diplomats put more emphasis on compliance to international law in ongoing negotiations for a final and binding code of conduct (COC) on the South China Sea.

Ambassador Deng Xijun arrived in the Indonesian capital over the weekend and submitted his credentials to ASEAN Secretary-General Lim Jock Hoi on Monday, marking the formal start of his duties in Southeast Asia.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with Lim, Ambassador Deng said there had been positive developments in the COC talks, with the completion of the first reading of the draft last year.

"So I think with our joint effort we will reach a consensus at an early date according to the three year mission," he told reporters at the ASEAN Secretariat compound, in reference to China's promise to finalize the COC in three years.

The COC is meant as a set of legally binding rules to prevent hostilities along one of the world's busiest maritime trade routes.

The envoy's arrival in the ASEAN capital on Friday coincided with a regional reaffirmation on the need to respect international law, a facetious snub at Beijing's illegal expansion in the region.

Southeast Asian foreign ministers had convened since Thursday in the coastal city of Nha Trang in southern Vietnam - which overlooks the South China Sea - for candid discussions on national and regional concerns including overlapping territorial and exclusive claims in the body of water.

After the retreat session that marked the start of the nation's chairmanship of ASEAN this year, Vietnam's top diplomat Pham Binh Minh said the ministers were encouraged by the progress of talks on the early conclusion of "an effective and substantive COC that is consistent with international law", including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"We emphasized the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to the COC negotiations, and thus welcomed practical measures that could reduce tensions and the risk of accidents, misunderstandings and miscalculation," he said in the ASEAN chairman's statement.

There was no direct mention of China in the statement, but it is widely understood as a clear reference to the East Asian giant's sweeping claims over the South China Sea, which were invalidated in a 2016 international tribunal ruling referencing UNCLOS, which Beijing has chosen to ignore.

Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims in the waters.

Unlike the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting held every summer to produce a joint communiqué that is agreed upon by all member states, the chairman's statement is a prerogative of the sitting chair.

ASEAN's esoteric use of language in its official documents has been the subject of tense debate, baffling observers while also setting a unifying tone for a region of dissimilar economies.

The head of the ASEAN Studies Program at The Habibie Center, Ibrahim Almutaqqi, said the Vietnam statement was quite interesting in the way it repeatedly mentioned UNCLOS when referencing the situation in the South China Sea and COC negotiations.

"It does seem to be a new development by Vietnam to explicitly include UNCLOS 1982 (in COC negotiations, which I think may not be welcomed by China, who would prefer to keep it vaguer," he said. "In any case I think Indonesia will be happy to have the specific reference given Jakarta's own issues with China."

An ASEAN diplomat also confirmed the inclusion of the terms "sovereign rights" and "sovereignty" in the ASEAN chairman's statement - two catchphrases that have emerged in Indonesia's recent dealings with China.

"Given Jakarta's recent standoff with Beijing over violations of Indonesia's EEZ [economic exclusive zone], the statement should be seen as welcome support from Indonesia's neighbors and a disguised rebuke of China's actions, even if it was not specifically named," Ibrahim said.

[This article was first published in The Jakarta Post on 21st January 2020 and can be found at: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2020/01/21/asean-closes-ranks-over-south-china-sea-dispute.html]

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