The Indonesian government said Tuesday it will push for an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea to defuse tensions in the region as a part of the country's strategic foreign policy this year.
"Indonesia shall actively strive so that ASEAN and China could produce a practical and effective COC for the sake of stability and security of the South China Sea," Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said, reading a press statement with foreign diplomats in attendance.
She expressed hope that negotiations on the code of conduct between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China will start in March in Vietnam, one of the claimants in the sea, and will conclude as soon as possible.
Retno did not elaborate further, but stressed that ASEAN should be preserved as the "prominent player in the region" with "collective leadership and concerted action."
During the East Asia Summit in Manila last year, Indonesia initiated a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers to set up a common stance, including on the code of conduct, before they met China.
"For Indonesia, ASEAN unity and centrality is the key (and) Indonesia will continue to safeguard ASEAN's unity and centrality," the foreign minister said.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has reclaimed a number of the disputed reefs and fortified them with military features over the past few years.
In July 2016, a Hague-based court ruled that China's historical claims have no legal basis. Beijing continues to reject the ruling.
The ASEAN foreign ministers and China signed a Declaration on the Conduct by the Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, a looser set of guidelines for their actions in the contested sea.
In August last year, their foreign ministers adopted a framework of the Code of Conduct that "will facilitate the work for the conclusion of an effective COC on a mutually agreed timeline." In November, ASEAN and China agreed to start negotiations.
Besides Vietnam, fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines have South China Sea claims that overlap with those of China and Taiwan. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
China was ASEAN's largest trading partner in 2016 and remained ASEAN's fourth-largest external source of foreign direct investment. They aim to boost their two-way trade to US$1 trillion by 2020, the statement said.
China has in recent years expanded its economic influence beyond the Indo-Chinese countries such as Cambodia and Laos to other Southeast Asian countries, especially those with which it has a territorial dispute over the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.