Think Tank (3/2024)
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The South China Sea: The Case for Renewed Political Impetus
26 Apr 2024

Dr Marty Natalegawa, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at RSIS and former Foreign Minister of Indonesia, spoke at a seminar on 26 April 2024 and explored the continued efforts in pushing forward negotiations for the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC) from the perspective of ASEAN as a whole. He primed his presentation with the notion of the South China Sea (SCS) issue as a litmus test for ASEAN’s relevance for managing regional disputes.

Dr Natalegawa provided an overview of the timeline of Southeast Asia’s regional management of the SCS dispute starting from 1990 up to the current era of COC talks, which he characterised as having languished into a “business as usual” routine of formalities within ASEAN. He reminded the audience that, independently of these routinised diplomatic processes, the real-world situation at sea has continued to worsen. He also highlighted that ASEAN’s diplomatic efforts have moved away from the inclination to push for consensus among its members so that they may speak with one voice on important issues.

In relation to these developments, Dr Natalegawa expressed concern over the weakening of ASEAN’s diplomatic process for suppressing the escalation of regional tensions, and the sense of a common ASEAN approach. He argued that to remain relevant in managing the SCS issue, ASEAN’s COC talks require disruption from routinised formalities and political directives from a higher level. He suggested directly engaging regional leaders to reinstill a sense of urgency regarding the issue at hand.

The presentation was followed by a Q&A session, during which Dr Natalegawa elaborated upon many of the ideas raised in his presentation. He concluded by reemphasising the need for renewing regional impetus for addressing the SCS issue, as inaction on an increasingly volatile issue cannot continue without consequence.

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