JAKARTA— After a year of tension involving maritime territorial disputes in Asia, Indonesia's foreign minister is stressing the need for more dialogue - especially with recent political transitions in Washington and Beijing and new administrations possible in Seoul and Tokyo.
After the Association of Southeast Asian Nations failed to reach a broad consensus on a framework for resolving disputes in the South China Sea, regional countries have been adopting their own policies to address the uncertainty.
The Chinese province of Hainan recently announced that it would allow the interception of ships in the contested area. China also created controversy when it issued passports with a map that includes the disputed territories as Chinese land.
The moves generated a backlash in Vietnam and the Philippines and now India is also weighing in.
The Indian Navy has suggested it is prepared to defend its joint oil interests from Chinese aggression.
A key mediator in the regional maritime power play, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa says that adopting a set of guidelines is now more important than ever.
"We are seeing a lot of political transitions in capitals in our region, of course the United States has gone through its political transition period, as well in China. And soon enough, we will have elections in Japan, in Korea so it is a state of flux, of course not just between countries, but within those concerned as well. So we need to have to some kind of certainty, some benchmark," Natalegawa explained. "A code of conduct by which we can address issues of common interest within our region."
Natalegawa has consistently rallied regional leaders to agree to a code of conduct.
But, when the proposal was rejected at the ASEAN summit this November, analysts said Indonesia had overestimated its diplomatic clout.
Acknowledging that talk of norms and guidelines has led to some pre-preemptive moves on the ground and at sea, the foreign minister says he is confident about the region’s future.
He argues that decades of regional stability have led to a clear economic dividend - one that is in the interests of all parties to maintain.
But Aleksius Jemadu, dean of global affairs at Jakarta’s Pelita Harapan University says that convincing China will be no easy task.
"The problem is can you persuade China to part of it or to be committed to it when it has to emphasize its strategic interests, that is the problem," said Jemadu. "First it is about strategic interests, the continuation of energy security for China, second is about territorial integrity. Third is about pride as a new superpower. China is not going to be bullied again by other major powers.”
ASEAN members Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, all claim parts of the energy-rich sea. But China maintains that is has sovereignty over almost the entire sea.
Home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the South China Sea is also believed to be rich in oil and gas.