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Key issues up for discussion at ASEAN Summit include code of conduct on South China Sea

Experts expect Jakarta to show its leadership in tackling some of the region’s most sensitive issues.


Key issues up for discussion at ASEAN Summit include code of conduct on South China Sea

A fishing boat passes by a setting sun in the Sulu Sea, as seen onboard the Philippine Coast Guard BRP Malabrigo while it heads to Philippine-occupied areas at nearby South China Sea on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

JAKARTA: As Indonesia hosts the first of two Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summits this year in Labuan Bajo on Tuesday (May 9), key issues on the agenda include the acceleration of negotiations on the text of a code of conduct with China.

The code seeks to serve as a guideline for conduct to prevent military incidents and manage conflict in the South China Sea.

Despite the ongoing negotiations, “we are not optimistic that there will be a signing this year”, said Ms Sharon Seah, senior fellow and coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

“The train may have already left the station because of events that are happening on the ground,” she said.

The conversation on the code of conduct is in addition to the eradication of human trafficking, preparation of a roadmap for Timor Leste’s full membership in ASEAN and signing of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Protocol.

On the cards are also strengthening health architecture, energy security, regional food and financial stability, and digitisation of the economy and the tourism sector.

The three pillars of Indonesia’s chairmanship based on its theme are ASEAN matters, epicentrum of growth, and the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

Experts expect Jakarta to show its leadership in tackling some of the region’s most sensitive issues.

“Particularly in the areas of political security issues, people tend to look up to Indonesia, and that's where Indonesia has a special expertise,” said research professor Dewi Fortuna Anwar.

The first ASEAN summit was hosted by Indonesia, which came up with “the most important document”, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, noted Prof Anwar from the Research Center for Politics, National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) in Jakarta.

The document forms the regional code of conduct for Southeast Asia, she said.


Leaders are set to discuss internal ASEAN matters as well as other key issues within and outside the region.

These include the discussions on crisis-hit Myanmar, and the implementation of the Five-Point Consensus – a peace plan agreed on by ASEAN and the Myanmar junta - which Indonesia has worked hard to push for.

Anti-coup protesters run as one of them discharges a fire extinguisher to counter the impact of tear gas fired by riot policemen in Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (File photo: AP)

Indonesia has been acting behind the scenes and they have been keeping the cards close to their chest, said Ms Seah.

“They have not been willing to divulge much of what's happening. At the summit, we are expecting that the chair’s special envoy will brief the leaders on these quiet diplomacy actions that have been reportedly taken,” she told CNA938.

The ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Centre will also present its joint assessment to the leaders, she added.

“There are some people who expect that ASEAN will abandon the Five-Point Consensus totally, but it's not going to happen because it's already set in motion,” she said.


Experts said the road ahead will be challenging.

There is a “sharpening of grip” multilaterally by the United States and China, with potential flashpoints likely in Taiwan and South China Sea, said researcher at the Centre for Strategic & International Studies Muhammad Waffaa Kharisma.

“There's a pressure for ASEAN to be relevant in that sense. And then internally, for example, (for it to deal with) the economy and development issues (and) how ASEAN can stay resilient in the middle of crises like the climate,” he said.

The issue of ASEAN unity and centrality will be “foremost in the minds of the leaders”, said Ms Seah.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a press conference in Jakarta previously that it is important to strengthen ASEAN’s capacity and ensure the bloc works more effectively to overcome future challenges.

“It is important to continue to maintain the unity and centrality of ASEAN so that ASEAN is able to continue to be a locomotive for regional peace and stability,” she said.

Source: CNA/ja(ca)


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