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Dialogue on the South China Sea: Keynote Address by Ambassador Arif Havas Oegroseno

Using the backdrop of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent ruling on the Philippine- China dispute as well as the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus Meeting’s inability to release a joint declaration,  Ambassador Arif Havas Oegroseno began his keynote speech by raising the foremost question facing the region: where is Southeast Asia going?  

In order to answer this question, Ambassador Havas outlined six positive trends that had come to define  the changing strategic regional environment affecting ASEAN and the South China Sea disputes; 1) the maturing of ASEAN into a credible, international  organization with a clear vision of community; 2) the establishment of an intricate web of cooperation, with the emergence of the EAS, RCEP and TPP complementing ASEAN, ASEAN Plus and APEC; 3) the growing prominence of Southeast Asia and East Asia as drivers of global economic growth; 4) Southeast Asia’s strong political and social stability relative to most parts of the world, especially in comparison to the Middle East; 5) the blossoming of regional initiatives such as China’s One-Belt-One-Road, Indonesia’s Global Maritime Axis, and the rise of foreign direct investment in Indonesia and the rest of the region; and 6) the increasing use of arbitration and mediation as a credible means of dispute resolution, showing that as Asian societies become more rules-based, the culture of international law evolved in Southeast Asia.

However, the rising tension and low-level conflicts surrounding the South China Sea threaten the more positive spinoffs from the new strategic environment. China and the US were stuck in a Thucydides trap, whereas the failure of ADMM+ to release a joint declaration showed that ASEAN might not be as strong as it seemed. Ambassador Havas presented a stark choice to the region: all stakeholders in the South China Sea dispute would have to decide whether they wanted chaos or peace.

Ambassador Havas stressed that even if resolution was impossible, peaceful management of the South China Sea conflict was entirely possible. He cited the example of Gibraltar, where the conflict had not been militarized despite years of continued sovereignty disputes between Spain and the United Kingdom. Southeast Asia had its own home-grown examples of conflict management and cooperation by multiple countries in areas without formally delineated maritime borders such as in the Straits of Malacca and the Coral Triangle. These initiatives form a Southeast Asian model for dispute management, which buttressed by the legal authority of UNCLOS, and political will from the region, should make it fairly easy for all stakeholders to manage the conflict in the South China Sea.
In the question and answer section, Ambassador Havas talked about the weaknesses of international courts in delineating maps, particularly in the methods and technology of delineation, which had led Indonesia to reject many international maps on the basis of inaccuracy.  In response to a question on Indonesian initiatives and its potential leadership role on the South China Sea, Ambassador Havas mentioned Indonesia’s participation in one-and-a-half track diplomacy initiatives and its workshop on the South China Sea, which brought all interested parties together. 

However, he said that Indonesia could not impose its leadership on others and had to take into consideration the views of other stakeholders. Ambassador Havas also talked about increased US- Indonesia cooperation in the aftermath of President Jokowi’s visit to Washington, DC, including an agreement by both parties to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on Maritime Cooperation. Ambassador Havas also shared his views on India’s Maritime Summit, Indonesia’s Global Maritime Axis and the future of ASEAN centrality.

Address by Amb Arif Havas Oegroseno at South China Sea Dialogue on 5 November 2015 can be viewed here.

Highlights of the discussion from this Dialogue can be downloaded here.