The militarisation of South China Sea region and war of words between USA and China is once again in focus ahead of first ever High Level Indo-Pacific Dialogue being hosted by Jakarta amid India's efforts to stabilise the region in partnership with several stakeholders. China's recent step to block designation of JeM chief Masood Azhar by UN Security Council could be a signal that Beijing will not be accommodative to a rules based world order or maintain UNCLOS amid South China Sea disputes. There’s a new flash point in South China Sea -- Thitu Island. China is claiming this island and bundle of low-lying sandbars off the Philippines coast. Filipino fishermen say they are being driven away from their traditional fishing grounds, by Chinese boats.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently suggested that China was blocking energy development in the South China Sea through "coercive means", preventing Southeast Asian countries from accessing more than $2.5 trillion in recoverable energy reserves. Addressing top energy firm executives and oil ministers in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday, Pompeo criticised "China's illegal island building in international waterways", insisting that it was not "simply a security matter". China on Wednesday slammed as "irresponsible" claims by the top American diplomat that Beijing was blocking access to energy beneath the South China Sea. China's Ministry of Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that Beijing had started consulting Southeast Asian nations about resolving disputes in the South China Sea, and called on non-claimant nations to keep out of the discussions.
US interestingly got support of sorts from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who said China should define its "so-called ownership" in the disputed South China Sea so other claimant countries can start to gain benefits from the resource-rich waters. Mahathir stressed in an interview with ABS-CBN network in Manila on Thursday the importance of freedom of navigation in the busy sea lanes, saying if there were no restrictions "the claims made by China will not affect us very much". Besides a Vietnamese government official recently stated that Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea’s contested Paracel Islands capsized after being rammed by a Chinese vessel. The official with Vietnam’s National Committee for Search and Rescue said on the condition of anonymity that the boat was fishing near Discovery Reef when the incident occurred last week.
The High Level Indo-Pacific Dialogue in Jakarta amid these recent developments is therefore significant. Besides all 10 SE Asian States, hosts Indonesia has invited India, USA, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and Australia making a East Asia Summit of sorts. The first ever high level policy dialogue on Indo-Pacific cooperation and the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Jakarta and it is expected that Indo-Pacific countries will take some bold decisions to formalise the cooperation. Amidst rising protectionism, the outcome of the forthcoming Indo-Pacific meeting therefore matters. The hosts Indonesia has been proposing a concept on Indo-Pacific which found its momentum with the inception of the global maritime fulcrum. The Dialogue will promote a new outlook of cooperation; create an enabling environment for peace; stability and prosperity; Strengthening the existing ASEAN-Led Mechanism (EAS).
Ahead of the dialogue Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi says China is accelerating efforts to reach an agreement with the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to avoid conflicts over the South China Sea. Wang told reporters at an annual news conference last Friday that China was sticking to a self-declared target date of 2021 for reaching a “code of conduct”. Asean and China agreed at their summit in Singapore last November to the early conclusion of a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea. The code will set out norms of behaviour in the contested waters. Asean and China have been working to fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, the precursor to the COC, since 2002. Negotiations on the COC began in March last year, following the adoption in 2017 of the framework for the COC. But according to experts on the subject, China cannot be fully trusted and they suggested trusty but verify approach. China's track record does not inspire confidence for DoC and CoC that will be acceptable to all.