JAKARTA - Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said Wednesday that negotiations with China on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, should resume soon to ease tensions in the region.
"We believe that the code of conduct will contribute in creating a conducive environment in the South China Sea," Retno told a press conference after an informal, virtual meeting of foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which preceded an annual ASEAN Summit scheduled for Friday.
The code of conduct has long been discussed, with China and the ASEAN agreeing in 2002 on a loose set of guidelines in which they committed to "exercise self-restraint" with regard to "activities that would complicate or escalate disputes" in the South China Sea.
The two sides had scheduled negotiations in Brunei in February, in the Philippines in May, in Indonesia in August and in China in October -- but all have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, home to some of the world's busiest sea lanes. It has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure, shifting the territorial status quo in its favor.
As it competes with the United States for influence in the region, China wants the code of conduct to include a provision that observers view as intended to curb U.S. naval operations in the disputed waters.
Retno expressed concern over "rivalry among big powers in the South China Sea" and said it is important for ASEAN "to continuously send messages to all parties to contribute in the stability and peace" in the area.
"Collaboration and cooperation, not rivalry, must always be prioritized," she added.
Besides the South China Sea, Retno said the ASEAN foreign ministers discussed East Timor's application to join the grouping and adopted the report of a fact-finding mission that assessed whether the young nation is ready to take on the challenge.
"Indonesia hopes that the process can be completed immediately and East Timor can join ASEAN in the near future," she said.
The fact-finding mission was made after East Timor, the only country in Southeast Asia not to be in ASEAN, expressed concerns about the "slow movement" of ASEAN in admitting it.
Singapore, according to some ASEAN sources, has been the most skeptical over East Timor's readiness, suggesting the tiny country's limited finances and human resource capacity will burden other members if it joins.
Among requirements for membership, each ASEAN member must establish and maintain embassies in all countries of the organization, contribute an equal share toward the annual operational costs and send representatives to about 200 meetings a year.
Besides Indonesia, ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.