Recent activities in the South China Sea may escalate tensions amid COVID-19 pandemic: Indonesia foreign minister

Recent activities in the South China Sea may escalate tensions amid COVID-19 pandemic: Indonesia foreign minister

The Paracel Islands are a chain of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea
The Paracel islands are a chain of disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea, claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. (AFP Photo)

JAKARTA: Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has expressed concern over recent activities in the South China Sea, noting that they may potentially escalate tensions at a time when global collective effort is vital in fighting COVID-19.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday (May 6), Mdm Marsudi said Indonesia has continued to follow recent developments in the South China Sea closely. 

She underlined the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the region to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight. 

The minister also urged all parties to respect international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982.

“Indonesia calls on all relevant parties to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from undertaking action that may erode mutual trust, and potentially escalate tensions in the region,” she stated.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi
Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi speaking at an event in the ministry on Oct 29, 2019. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

She added that Indonesia remains committed to ensure the conclusion of a code of conduct that is effective, substantive and actionable despite the current circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mdm Marsudi was referring to a code of conduct in the South China Sea to resolve disputes and incidents.

China has been negotiating the code of conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but there has been little visible progress.

FILE PHOTO: A ship of Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of Vietnam Marine Guard in the South
A ship (top) of the Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of the Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea, about 210km off shore of Vietnam May 14, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Nguyen Minh)

China claims much of the South China Sea, but there are overlapping claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Washington and its allies have also challenged Beijing’s territorial claims.

There have been recent signs of tensions in the South China Sea amid the COVID-19 situation.

Last week, the US Navy said a guided-missile destroyer had sailed through waters near the Paracel islands, challenging China's claim to the area.

The USS Barry undertook the so-called "freedom of navigation operation" after Beijing upped its claims to the region by designating an official administrative district for the islands.

The US sought to assert the "rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law", the Navy reportedly said in a statement.

"Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose an unprecedented threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight and the right of innocent passage of all ships," the statement added.

READ: Vietnam protests Beijing's expansion in disputed South China Sea

READ: Beijing names islands in disputed South China Sea

Last month, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein called for calm in the South China Sea and reaffirmed Malaysia's commitment to peace in the disputed waters.

This came after reports that a Chinese government survey ship was "tagging" an exploration vessel operated by Petronas in the South China Sea.

In a statement on Apr 23, he said: "Due to the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, all parties must work together to maintain peace, security and stability in the South China Sea and increase efforts to build, maintain and enhance mutual trust and confidence”.

"Just because we have not made a public statement on this does not mean we have not been working on all the above mentioned, we have open and continuous communication with all relevant parties, including the People’s Republic of China and the United States," he added.

Natuna Islands Jokowi
This handout picture taken and released on Jan 8, 2020 by the Presidential Palace shows Indonesia's President Joko Widodo during his visit to a military base in the Natuna islands, which border the South China Sea. (Photo: AFP/Presidential Palace)

Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea but in recent years clashed with China over fishing rights around the country’s Natuna Islands near the disputed South China Sea.

Last December, Chinese vessels entered the Natuna waters prompting Indonesia to summon the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta and deploy warships as well as fighter jets to the area.

READ: Chinese vessels leaving Natuna after days of stand-off with Indonesia

The vessels left in January after President Joko Widodo visited Natuna to assert Indonesia’s sovereignty.

In 2016, Indonesia also clashed with China over fishing rights in the same area.

Source: CNA/ks(aw)

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