JAKARTA – Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang on Wednesday vowed that China will work with South-east Asia to “jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea”, amid rising tensions in the disputed waters.
China and four Asean states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – as well as Taiwan have overlapping claims over the strategic waterway, an issue which has remained unresolved for decades. As the rotating chair of Asean in 2023, Indonesia has said it will hold new rounds of negotiations with Asean member states and China from March.
At a joint press conference with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi in Jakarta, Mr Qin said China, Indonesia and the littoral states to the South China Sea will work with other Asean countries “to fully and effectively implement” the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, which calls for a peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea, and speed up consultations on a code of conduct governing it.
Mr Qin’s two-day trip, which ends on Thursday, is his first official visit to Asia since his appointment as foreign minister in late 2022. He paid a courtesy call on President Joko Widodo on Wednesday morning, and is expected to meet other officials.
Besides the South China Sea issue, the two foreign ministers discussed other regional and global issues, from post-Covid-19 pandemic recovery to the Myanmar crisis to security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ms Retno told Mr Qin that as Asean chair, Indonesia and Asean are determined to make South-east Asia a peaceful and stable region, as well as a centre of economic growth, reiterating Mr Widodo’s remarks to the region’s foreign ministers in early February that “Asean should not become a proxy for any power”.
Mr Qin expressed support for Asean’s strategic independence, centrality and an inclusive regional architecture. He also noted that a “new Cold War or major country rivalry” should not take place in the Asia-Pacific, and “regional countries should not be forced to pick sides”.
“We hope and trust that Indonesia and other Asean countries will bear in mind peace, stability and prosperity of the region, and make independent judgments and choices,” he said through an interpreter.
On the Myanmar issue, Ms Retno thanked China for its support of the Five Point Consensus strategy adopted by Asean in April 2021 to deal with the political crisis there.
The five points in the strategy are the appointment of a special envoy, a visit by the envoy to Myanmar, an end to violence in the country, constructive dialogue among all parties, and humanitarian assistance by Asean.
“As the chair of Asean, Indonesia will carry out engagements with all stakeholders in Myanmar with one goal, which is to pave the way for the possibility of carrying out an inclusive national dialogue in Myanmar,” she said.
The two ministers also discussed bilateral issues, including common efforts to strengthen the Indonesia-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, covering the areas of trade and investment, infrastructure, maritime, health, connectivity and people-to-people contacts.
During the meeting between Mr Widodo and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Bali in 2022, the two sides agreed on a plan of action to further solidify this partnership through concrete cooperation programmes for the next five years.
In 2022, Indonesia’s trade with China hit a new record of US$133.65 billion (S$179 billion), with a significant reduction in the trade deficit on the Indonesian side. During the same period, Chinese investments were the second-largest in Indonesia, according to a statement from Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry.
Mr Qin said he was optimistic that Chinese tourists arriving in Indonesia will exceed pre-pandemic figures of around two million a year, as direct flights continue to increase between both sides.
He added: “A new year marks a new beginning. China stands ready to work with our Indonesian friends to open up an even brighter future for our bilateral relations, and to inject more stability and positive energy to the developments in the region and post-Covid-19 recovery of the entire world.”