Indonesian troops are deployed at the Natuna military base in Riau islands on Jan 3. Indonesia has made more strident statements against China over the South China Sea. -AFP

JAKARTA: The future direction of code of conduct (COC) negotiations between Asean members and China is at stake after recent developments saw Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines hardening their stand on the South China Sea issue.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) and Al Jazeera voiced the possibility of Asean changing course in the COC negotiations after Indonesia and Malaysia made more strident statements against China on the issue.

SCMP referred to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s latest tone when stating that China’s claims in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) which stood on the grounds that Chinese fleets had long fished there had ‘no legal basis’ and ‘were never recognised under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982’”.

“That statement followed another protest from Jakarta which accused Beijing of illegally sending a coastguard vessel into Indonesian waters at the Natunas.

“The mission marked a ‘violation of sovereignty’, Indonesia said as it summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge a formal protest,” SCMP said.

A more surprising move was made by Malaysia when Foreign Minister, Datuk Seri Saifuddin Abdullah, in a response to Al Jazeera’s question about the decision to take its case to the United Nations, said:

“For China to claim that the whole of the South China Sea belongs to them, I think that is ridiculous.”

On Dec 12, Malaysia filed a submission to the UN seeking clarity on the limits of its continental shelf beyond the 322km EEZ in the disputed body of water claimed by several Southeast Asian countries.

Another claimant, the Philippines, has accused a Chinese vessel of ramming one of its boats, causing it to sink weeks ago and endangering the lives of 22 fishermen on board.

The fishermen were saved by a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the waters of Recto bank near the Spratly Islands, The Express said.

Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenza  said: “We condemn in the strongest terms the cowardly action of the Chinese fishing vessel and its crew for abandoning the Filipino crew.”

Protests erupted in the Philippines as citizens demanded the country defend its sovereignty claims over the Spratly Islands.

Yet another claimant, Vietnam, has change its tune even earlier against China on the issue.

“Last February in an unprecedented move, the government-controlled Vietnamese media referred to China in relation to the 40th anniversary of the China-Vietnam border war as the invader, and the conflict as a war,” Al Jazeera said.

SCMP quoted Derek Grossman, a senior defence analyst at the US-based Rand Corporation think tank, who said: “It is also odd, and perhaps even foolhardy, for Beijing to have pushed the envelope with Indonesia in the same year in which Asean and China are set to conclude lengthy negotiations on a COC in the South China Sea.

“China’s response may have inadvertently pushed Indonesia towards siding with Vietnam in calling for Asean to have discussions on a strict and binding document for dispute settlement.”

The maritime dispute has overshadowed Asean summits but with Vietnam chairing it this year, the COC negotiations with China over the South China Sea is predicted to be a more urgent matter to be concluded.

Under the UN Convention for UNCLOS, coastal states are entitled to an EEZ and beyond that are considered the high seas, common to all nations.

It was on this basis that the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China’s claims in 2016 to almost the entire area, through which an estimated US$3 trillion worth of trade pass each year.

Beijing, however, rejects the ruling and has expanded its presence by building artificial islands with runways and installing an advanced missile systems.