Sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea are at the heart of increasing tensions in Southeast Asia. In early May, the dispatch of a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters and the subsequent standoff with Vietnam had the effect of centralizing global attention on the confrontation between China and some of its ASEAN neighbors. Although tensions over contending maritime boundaries are not just about China – unresolved bilateral disputes still exist between Malaysia and the Philippines for instance – recent events confirmed that the South China Sea, along with East China Sea where Sino-Japanese relations are also increasingly strained, is a locus of China’s growing maritime assertiveness. So far, China’s activity in the region has met the uneven responses of Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, all having claims of their own.
Other, non-claimant actors also have a role in these disputes. The United States is not claiming any territory in the East and South China Seas but made clear nonetheless that it had a “vital interest” in unimpeded freedom of navigation in the region. In the South China Sea, Indonesia has on several occasions denied having any territorial dispute with China, but monitors the evolution of the general situation with great care. It is also very involved in the management of these disputes: Jakarta has long been a vocal proponent of a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. It has sponsored a series of dedicated workshops on the issue. When the ASEAN Phnom Penh Summit failed to result in a joint closing statement for the first time in the organization’s history – due to Chinese pressure over the very issue of South China Sea disputes – it was the shuttle diplomacy efforts of Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa that saved the day.