At the United Nation’s General Assembly this week, Indonesian officials are doing their best to act as peace-brokers over tension in the South China Sea (also known as the Everything Belongs to China Sea). However, as illustrated by the above cartoon from The Economist, multi-party negotiations are only beneficial if you’re not the party with the largest military and second-largest economy in the world.
China claims most of the South China Sea. In July it upped the ante in its sharp disagreements with the Philippines and Vietnam over who owns what by establishing a military garrison, which Beijing claims will administer a vast area of sea and tiny islands scattered across it.
Beijing wants to settle conflicting claims with individual nations rather than through a multilateral mechanism that will give the smaller members greater clout in negotiations.
In his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that ASEAN was engaged in “earnest negotiations” for a legally binding code of conduct for the region. In the past ASEAN has notoriously favoured neutrality and non-intervention rather than collectivist action, Philippine proposals in 2011 for an ASEAN-China “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation” in the South China Sea were shunned by other members with only Vietnam expressing tacit support.