Indonesia and Vietnam said Wednesday that the South China Sea dispute threatens regional stability and that countries should settle the acrimonious row by adhering to international law.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chairman, told members at the group’s ministerial meeting that rising tensions in the South China Sea could threaten peace in the region even as its countries need to cooperate to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the meeting, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the group’s countries did not want to “get caught up in the rivalry between major powers,” in an apparent reference to tensions between China and the United States.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold in a complex manner and our people and businesses continue to be outstretched by its repercussions,” Phuc said in a speech opening the online meeting. “The regional geo-political and geo-economic landscape, including the South China Sea, are witnessing growing volatilities that are detrimental to peace and stability.”
Phuc urged countries to resolve the dispute over the South China Sea by adhering to international law, including the United Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
Indonesia’s Retno concurred.
“Only by adhering to international law will we make the South China Sea a peaceful and stable place,” she said.
The officials’ comments come even as the U.S. and China spar over the South China Sea.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in July that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea are illegal. Washington, he said, stands with its Southeast Asian allies “in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources.”
Beijing responded by accusing the U.S. of continuing to interfere in the South China Sea issue by “flexing muscles, [and] stirring up tension and inciting confrontation” in the region “under the pretext of preserving stability.”
China, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have territorial claims in the South China Sea. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
On Wednesday, Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that ASEAN would continue to promote dialogue and non-militarization while refraining from complicating the situation in the South China Sea.
A series of ASEAN ministerial meetings are planned this week, including the ASEAN Regional Forum on Saturday. The 27-country forum includes the 10 ASEAN members along with Russia, Japan, Australia, the U.S., China, South Korea, and India.
Dealing with COVID-19
As of Wednesday, ASEAN countries combined have recorded more than 520,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 12,000 deaths, according to data compiled by experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
The Philippines has the highest number of positive cases in the region, with 245,143 cases, followed by Indonesia, with 203,342. However, Indonesia’s death toll of 8,336 is more than twice that of the Philippines.
In his remarks to the ASEAN members, Vietnam’s Phuc urged regional cooperation to deal with the pandemic.
He said the effective use of the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund and the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies would greatly improve the region’s capacity to respond to the pandemic.
In a special online summit in April, the group’s members agreed to support reallocating existing funds to battle the pandemic and to establish the response fund.
“We need to promptly help our people and businesses restore production and return their life to normal in order to speed up economic recovery,” Phuc said.
ASEAN response to Rohingya
At the ministerial meeting on Wednesday, Retno urged member countries to address the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya ethnic Muslim minority.
On Monday, almost 300 Rohingya came ashore on a beach in Indonesia’s Aceh province on Monday after having spent more than half a year at sea. Some of the rescued said they paid smugglers thousands of dollars to reach Malaysia.
Retno said that Indonesia was providing temporary shelter to these refugees, as well as to 99 who arrived in June, for “humanitarian reasons.”
“However, we know that we need to work together and this cooperation, among others, is to address transnational crimes including the issue of people smuggling and trafficking in persons,” Retno said.
“I asked the Myanmar Foreign Minister and the ASEAN Secretary General to update us on where we are.”
Malaysia said the Rohingya crisis has regional implications for ASEAN members as well.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that a prolonged conflict in Myanmar’s Rakhine state “jeopardizes the security and the stability of the ASEAN region.”
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya live in Rakhine under the “threat of genocide” according to a United Nations-mandated Fact-Finding Mission report from September 2019.
“We are closely following the irregular movement of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state and Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh] via land and water routes,” Hussein said at the ASEAN meeting.
“What we do not wish to see is a repeat of the 2015 boat people crisis in the Andaman Sea,” he said referring to the time when thousands of Rohingya were stranded in the Andaman Sea after countries in the region refused to take them in
”How do we address this?”
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