UNITED NATIONS—Indonesia is circulating among Southeast Asian nations a draft code of conduct for the South China Sea, hoping for progress before a regional summit in November, its foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has been trying to patch up differences among Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members on how to manage the maritime territorial disputes that pit China against several of its neighbors in a region where sea lanes are crucial to world trade, rich fishing grounds and potentially major reserves of natural gas and oil.
He said that the situation in the region—also rattled by a separate island dispute between China and Japan—is very troubling, but countries including China appreciate they have much to lose from conflict.
“There’s a recognition that the countries of the region have prospered and have developed precisely because there’s been very benign, stable conditions,” Natalegawa told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual gathering of world leaders. “This is something we don’t want to be tinkering with. It could become like a Pandora’s box.”
China claims most of the South China Sea. In July it upped the ante in its sharp disagreements with the Philippines and Vietnam over who owns what by establishing a military garrison, which Beijing claims will administer a vast area of sea and tiny islands scattered across it.
Beijing wants to settle conflicting claims with individual nations rather than through a multilateral mechanism that will give the smaller members greater clout in negotiations.
Natelagawa, who met with his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, said there had been some adjustment in China’s position.
He said China recognizes “as much as anyone else” the need for diplomatic progress, including implementing a declaration of conduct—the non-binding agreement that Beijing signed up to with the Asean in 2002. The code of conduct on peacefully resolving the South China Sea sovereignty disputes is intended as the mechanism for putting that declaration into practice.
“What we are looking for is a basic rules-of-the-road type of arrangement for the South China Sea,” said Natelagawa, “so that countries behave in a manner that is expected of them in maintaining stability.”
In his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the disputes had been festering for the better part of a century and Asean was engaged in “earnest negotiations” for a legally binding code of conduct.
Natelagawa said “we will begin to test the waters” on the draft code in consultations with Southeast Asian governments this week in New York, hoping for progress before a summit of East Asian leaders to be held in Cambodia in November.
He said that was needed so the disputes don’t run “out of control.”
Indonesia, by far the largest of the 10 Asean member states, is not itself a claimant in the South China Sea, although as a sprawling island nation it has a major stake in the region’s stability.
In recent years, Jakarta has assumed a more prominent leadership role within the grouping, and remains on good terms with both the US and China, which are increasingly at odds over how to handle the South China Sea disputes.