On Oct. 10, the eighth East Asia Summit, comprising the 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members plus eight other countries including the United States, China and Japan, welcomed “positive progress” on official consultations toward a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
The declaration was included in the chairman’s statement issued at the summit to assuage increasing enmity between China and some ASEAN countries over long-standing territorial disputes. But it is not clear whether the code of conduct will be concluded soon because China does not seem very keen on doing so.
Even without concrete progress in negotiations toward the accord, the ASEAN countries concerned and China would be wise to hold consultations from time to time to prevent, at the very least, an accidental military clash.
Such meetings in themselves would help to build the trustful relations necessary for establishing the foundation on which the code of conduct could be concluded.
The reality is far from ideal. China is trying to divide the ASEAN countries to counter the U.S. Obama administration’s “pivot-to-Asia” strategy and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to strengthen Japan’s relations with ASEAN countries.
China is taking an especially hard stance toward the Philippines, which in January asked that an international tribunal under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea declare China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea as “illegal and invalid.”
No meetings between Chinese and Filipino leaders have materialized since Mr. Xi Jinping became China’s president in March 2013.
Elsewhere, China is wielding strong influence over Laos and Cambodia through vigorous economic aid to both countries.
After attending the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang went to Thailand and announced that China will help Thailand with high-speed railway construction in exchange for receiving surplus rice from Thailand.
In Vietnam, much anger lingers over a March incident in which a Chinese naval ship fired on a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracel Islands. Nevertheless, Mr. Li agreed with Vietnam to promote marine development.
Amid its own territorial row with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, Japan should be careful about how it approaches China and ASEAN. It would be unwise for Japan to appear as if it is trying to get ASEAN members to gang up on China diplomatically for the purpose of containing it. That would only increase tension with China, an economic partner that ASEAN countries cannot ignore.
Japan should help ASEAN countries push negotiations on the code of conduct from a position of unified strength to prevent China from increasing its effective control over the South China Sea. But Japan should not forget the importance of improving its own ties with China.