SINGAPORE – 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.”