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ASEAN-China good will hunting

by Simon Tay

Clues about the character of the new Chinese leadership are emerging from interactions with other Asians. Contention with the Japanese over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands suggests Beijing to be more assertive than ever. With the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) there are also contested claims in the South China Sea that color the overall relationship.

The dynamics differ. Four ASEAN members contest China’s claims to various islets and features, with Vietnam and the Philippines the most active and vocal compared to Malaysia and Brunei. The group as a whole, however, remains neutral, and some may lean toward China.

Last year, then-chair Cambodia refused any mention of the issue and triggered an unprecedented failure to reach an agreed statement. Some feared Chinese pressure would undermine ASEAN unity.

By contrast, Brunei, the current chair, has so far been successful in keeping the issue on the agenda without appearing one-sided. Its leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has stepped up to personally visit Washington, Beijing and then Manila. These special efforts — all in the space of six weeks — ensure attention at the highest level. It is to the chair’s credit that the ASEAN Summit in late April did not repeat the Phnom Penh phenomenon.

The Six-Point Principles for resolving maritime issues were re-emphasized as a basis to jump-start talks on a binding Code of Conduct. That’s nothing especially new, but it is enough to put the process back on track and shift the onus to Beijing.

Enter new Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Critics point out that he avoided the claimants except Brunei. This was to be expected as a first-go for a new minister, who has a deserved reputation for skill and smoothness. Tensions have, after all, risen in recent months, with the Philippines notably active. Manila has put up a legal challenge for international arbitration that is proceeding despite China’s refusal to participate. Beijing has responded outside the court, with more visits to the disputed areas by fishing and other vessels. After a recent incident at sea that involved the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman, outcries against Manila have been widespread on both the mainland and Taiwan.

As tensions have mounted, the U.S. naval presence is seen as welcome assurance, and some in ASEAN may also have a greater openness to a Japanese presence at sea. This could reinforce the Abe administration as it reviews the constitutionally restricted role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

The countries chosen for Wang’s visit was a deliberate. Indonesia and Singapore are nonclaimants but have been notably active since the failure in Cambodia. Brunei has claims that overlap China’s but has been self-restrained as the ASEAN chair.

It remains to be seen how engaged Thailand will be. When Minister Wang Yi met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the media coverage focused on whether Beijing would require the return of a baby panda born in Chiang Mai.

These four countries can serve as pillars for ASEAN on the issue. To do so, they must aim to ensure group unity while responding actively but neutrally. ASEAN must help strike a balance that lets claimant states buy in while it maintains China’s trust.

A critical step that ASEAN leaders urged is for officials to start work on the promised Code of Conduct. Official negotiations must be at a sufficient level and pace. Only where issues are too technical or sensitive should ASEAN and China appoint eminent persons to advise. Joint development — which China has called for — should be considered if a suitable area can be agreed.

The prospect is that China may be more cooperative and less confrontational with ASEAN than with Japan. But Beijing must not abuse the process and string out discussions indefinitely.

If positive steps are not forthcoming and incidents at sea escalate, diplomatic efforts will be seen as empty promises that erode good will with ASEAN.

Whether ASEAN and China can handle the issues among them will test the temperament not only of Beijing’s leaders but also of ASEAN. A reality check will come at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which will soon bring together foreign ministers from across the Asia-Pacific. Remember that it was at the ARF almost three years ago that U.S. Secretary Hillary Clinton intervened, to China’s chagrin.

Discussion of the South China Sea with ARF members beyond ASEAN is inevitable. Others with stakes in peace and stability across the wider region — especially Japan and the United States — will judge the situation accordingly.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and associate professor teaching international law at the National University of Singapore. He is also the author of “Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America.”

  • henrynguyen

    You are presenting incomplete facts and interpretation biased toward China. ASEAN as a whole will never be united for a real permanent solution of South China Sea conflict. Landlocked members (Cambodia,Laos, Myanmar) and countries with dominant Chinese influences among its population ( Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore) will readily perceive Chinese intimidation and therefore act hesitantly until dramatic Chinese caused bloodshed and/or international intervention provide covers for their Chinese opposition. You can gauge their direction by looking at their record spending on security upgrades, without question they prepare to deal with potential Chinese aggressions. China knows this and thus, Wang’s trip to apply the pressure on Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. If China wants peaceful solution, his 1st diplomatic trip would be to the Philippines and Vietnam ( same policy pattern of Xi’s Russia and Li’s India ).
    Mentioning the Filipino shooting of Taiwanese fisherman is intentionally biased without noting routine Chinese attacks on Filipino and Vietnamese ( Chinese navy ship shot and burned down Vietnamese fishing boat last month and Chinese Oceanic Patrol ship rammed another Vietnamese fishing boat with 15 crews on board…). China just did not show up in the South China Sea, they are there to bully, provoke and intimidate their neighbors: lawlessly and criminally.
    Regardless of the US pivot to Asia, China receptive to the new binding COC, ASEAN featuring SCS crisis at every meeting, every nation calling for peaceful solution, China pledging co-development …Japan, India, the Philippines and Vietnam must be prepared to engage Chinese forces before the rest of this region and the world recognize that there will be no peace and stability until China faces economic collapse, military defeat and/or regime change.

    • Globeharmony

      Well, well, you are also in the habit of providing your interpretation biased towards China. It is obvious you would like dragging others into Vietnam dispute and fight your war that you cannot win.

      In the wild open sea without clearly defined and noticeable boundary, encounters between patrol ships and fishermen occur daily with ramming boats, on-board inspections as the norm, but none can compare to the trigger happy patrol that shot over 50 bullets on an “unarmed” small fishing boat. You should hope one day your fellow fishermen will not encounter such fate.

      Learn some history before commenting. First, bullying? Chinese fishermen have been fishing in the South China even before the birth of Vietnam. Second, historically and without China’s help in the past, Vietnam would have owned no islands (instead of 28). Greed has no limit for a turncoat country. Third, the claim by Philippines using UNCLOS is a joke. The Marcos government ratified UNCLOS in 1984. But it did not ratify the treaty in full, declaring that it doesn’t recognize UNCLOS on certain issues. Guess which? On issue of sovereignty. Philippines formally filed an eight-paragraph document when it ratified UNCLOS, which declared that nothing in the treaty would apply to its territorial claims, and so as China and most of the signatory countries.

      Last but not least, if Vietnam wants a peaceful solution, it has ample opportunity to visit China for resolution instead of in July 2012 with the U.S. hooray in Vietnam, the National Assembly of Vietnam decided to pass a law demarcating Vietnamese sea borders to include the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Is the small bully hiding under the big bully to grab land? And why did Vietnam have to enact if the islands belong to Vietnam to begin with?

      • Asean Unite

        It’s funny how you can say that the Chinese have been fishing there before The Vietnamese or Filipinos. It’s like saying that Australia truly don’t belong tot he Aborigines who have live there since time immemorial. Or that Europeans owned America versus the Indians who live there. The Han has not reached the Pearl River delta when the Austronesians…the ancestors of Malays and Vietnamese plied the oceans of the world. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/travel_records.pdf.

        Up to now, Madagascar’s language is Malay based and not African…while the Thousands of islands in the pacific all find commonality with South East Asia.

        You Han have a way of distorting History . Go back to your polluted shores and leave the South east Asian Sea to us. This is the Maritime heart of South east Asia and you are not welcomed here!

      • henrynguyen

        1. You are right, Vietnam can not win against China and as a matter of fact, no nation looks to go to war with China. That makes Chinese’s self-fabricated propaganda of external threats is even more hypocritical and obvious government sponsored deception of its own people.

        2. Regardless of how the joint-investigation comes out, the Filipino Coast Guard should be held accountable for shooting unarmed Taiwanese fishing boat, so does the Chinese navy and Oceanic Patrol ships that opened fire on Filipino and Vietnamese. No, South China Sea is a big enough fishing grounds used by Cham, Chinese, Malay and Vietnamese for centuries and ” encounters between patrol ships and fishermen occur daily with ramming boats, on-board inspections as the norm ” is a poor excuse for Chinese criminal and lawless abuses of superior power.
        3. Lessons of history? Through different names, political systems, and failed Chinese invasions, the Vietnamese nation forming process can date her birth back to over 4,000 years regardless of your China centric viewpoint. Chinese fishing activities in the SCS does not equate its ownership of this shared water, which is the main arrogance of the universally rejected 9 dash claim.

        Navy gunboats may grant China power, but not historical facts… Before 1974, China had no (zero) possession at all in the whole South China Sea (Taiwan did own a single largest island). China is the only claimant (of 6 total) that used violent forces to gain its occupation: 1974-Paracel islands from South Vietnam (46 deaths), 1988- 8 Spratly reefs/atolls from Vietnam (64 deaths), 1995-Mischief Shoal from the Philipinnes (1 death) and 2012-Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.
        The Philippines claims 200 nm EEZ based on UNCLOS is a joke and China claims 2 millions square miles of ocean as its own is not? Here again, reversal of historical and legal facts by China appears to be a national characteristics. Remember, respect as a superpower is earned, not by demanding or repeating what obviously fabricated facts.
        4. Vietnam did want peaceful solution and did negotiate a settlement with China for roughly 1/2 of Tokin bay (between north Vietnam and Hainan island, part of SCS). That’s why the original 11 dash map was reduced to 9 dashes. And look at what happened? China now impose its May 15 fishing ban and patrolling the Vietnamese sided water to enforce it. What is the point of a treaty to Chinese government? or maybe, this question id redundant because after trashing the 2002 DOC, China now wants ASEAN to work on a new COC. China will sign anything, agree to everything and wait for the opportunities to violate them with forces. That is the ” Chinese Dream”!