JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi cautioned the United States and China on Tuesday not to entangle her country in their regional struggle for influence, telling the two superpowers: “We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry.”
Retno, the chief diplomatic envoy for Southeast Asia’s largest country, made the comment in an interview with Reuters ahead of a series of key meetings of regional foreign ministers this week, some of which will include their U.S. and China counterparts.
Military activity in the South China Sea has increased this year alongside hostile rhetoric and antagonistic policy moves from China and the United States, raising concerns among some Southeast Asian states that the risk of armed conflict is rising.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi have ratcheted up their diplomacy in the region in an effort to persuade members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to be more sympathetic to their positions.
As well as Indonesia, ASEAN comprises nine other states: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei.
Retno said ASEAN must remain steadfastly neutral and united.
“ASEAN, Indonesia, wants to show to all that we are ready to be a partner,” said Retno. “We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry.”
China claims most of the South China Sea as sovereign territory. Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have rival claims to the resource-rich waters.
The United States this year has escalated “freedom of navigation” operations in waters claimed by China, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.
China’s Navy has also increased the tempo of naval exercises in the waterway, including testing four medium-range anti-ship ballistic missiles dubbed “aircraft carrier killers”. Its vessels, and those of allied maritime militias, have also harassed Southeast Asian fishing boats in disputed waters.
Retno told Reuters the escalating militarisation of the South China Sea – and broader U.S.-China animosity – was troubling.
“One word: worrying,” she said. “That is the political reality that we have to face.”
She said a joint statement last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers showed that Southeast Asian states were united, dedicated to peace and not taking sides as China-U.S. relations deteriorated.
“(ASEAN has) a good culture, but we have to nurture it. We can’t take it for granted that these values will live forever.”
Meanwhile, Retno said she would raise the plight of the Rohingya refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar with the country’s foreign minister. On Monday, Indonesia rescued almost 300 Rohingya refugees who had fled their makeshift homes in the teeming camps of Bangladesh by sea. Other refugees have been turned away by ASEAN states.
“It is very important to continue talking with Myanmar about preparing safe, dignified and voluntary repatriations. Until now there’s no progress,” she said.
“When it comes to the humanitarian issue, we do hope that other countries render that assistance. This is not the responsibility of two countries.”
(Reporting by Tom Allard and Stanley Widianto, Editing by William Maclean)