WASHINGTON — Indonesia’s president called Tuesday for all parties in the disputed South China Sea to exercise restraint and for China and Southeast Asia’s regional bloc to start discussions on the substance of a code of conduct to manage tensions there.
President Joko Widodo was speaking in Washington, hours after a US Navy warship sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly Islands archipelago in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims, drawing an angry protest from Beijing.
Widodo, who met President Barack Obama on Monday, did not directly refer to the US action. He said Indonesia supports freedom of navigation but also underlined his nation’s neutrality.
Indonesia has islands that may fall within China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, but doesn’t count itself as one of the claimants to the disputed islands and reefs.
“Indonesia is not a party to the dispute but we have a legitimate interest in peace and stability there. We call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from taking actions that could undermine trust and confidence and put at risk the peace and stability of the region,” he told the Brookings Institution think tank.
He said Indonesia, the largest nation in Southeast Asia, is ready to play “an active role” in resolving the dispute.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, and China have made little headway in the past decade on negotiating a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, which is a major conduit for world trade.
China says virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim either parts or all of it. Since 2013, China has accelerated the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets.
Tuesday’s sail-past was Washington’s most significant effort to date to demonstrate that China’s manmade islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding territorial waters.
Beijing, however, said the move damaged US-China relations and regional peace.