Indonesia Takes the Lead on the South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiations

The South China Sea has long been a source of tension between several of the nations of Southeast Asia and China, characterized by conflicting claims and even occasional maritime skirmishes. With a third of all trade passing through the South China Sea, as well as the area’s large deposits of oil and natural gas, it is unsurprising that ownership is heavily contested.1 Indonesia is not technically a claimant of the South China Sea, but China’s Nine Dash Line absorbs territory from its claimed Exclusive Economic Zone around the Natuna Islands, hence its stake in the normalization of relations.2


Tensions are particularly high at this time, with active conflicts currently taking place between Filipino fishermen and the Chinese coastguard. A code of conduct has therefore never been more necessary.3 This concept dates back to 2002 and is staunchly supported by all claimants to the South China Sea, however progress has previously stalled due to disagreements about its contents.4

Indonesia has had a measure of success in this area. In a press conference on the 9th January 2024, Rolliansyah Soemirat, Director for ASEAN Political and Security Cooperation, announced that Indonesia had spent much of its ASEAN Chairmanship in 2023 leading the charge for an effective Code of Conduct by garnering unanimous support from all ASEAN member countries and China for a groundbreaking initiative aimed at expediting negotiations around the code.5 By introducing comprehensive guidelines that align the future code with international norms, Indonesia has achieved significant progress in advancing the realization of a Code of Conduct. The guidelines not only pave the way for a Code, but also outline a timeline for its completion within the next three years.5

Despite these promising steps, the complexity of the issue, and the numerous stakeholders to it, make agreement unlikely, and it remains to be seen how well Indonesia’s commitment to expedite progress will perform. While a 2016 court ruling invalidated much of China’s nine dash line, Beijing has refused to accept the judgement, and has historically exhibited disdain for international law.3 As such, it is worth noting that should countries deem the code unfavourable, there is no protection against a breach of the terms. Therefore, while Indonesia’s leadership and successes in promoting a Code of Conduct represent a strong step forward, a Code will not solve the issue of multiple claimants of the South China Sea and will, at best, merely provide a more stable environment to do so, provided it is respected by all parties.

[1]Oleksandra Mamchii, (2023), “Strategic importance of the South China Sea”, Best Diplomats, November 21.

[2] Kiki Siregar, (2023), “In focus: What the remote Natuna islands reveal about Indonesia’s stance on China,” Channel News Asia, August 5.

[3] AJ, (2023), “China urges Philippines to ‘act with caution’ amid South China Sea dispute”, Al Jazeera, December 21.

[4] Prashanth Parameswaran, (2023), “What’s behind the new China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct talk guidelines?”, Wilson Centre, July 25.

[5] PT, (2024), “Indonesia takes leadership in South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations”, Politics Today, January 10.


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