Rising tensions in the South China Sea have changed recent ASEAN-China relations from cooperation to potential conflict. Yet there is now agreement to begin consultations on a Code of Conduct to manage the issue.

Since his appointment, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has also visibly upgraded engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Marking the 10th anniversary of their strategic partnership, a recent High Level Forum proceeded positively with high officials and tank experts from both sides. Is there substance beneath the ceremonies? Are relations turning more positive?

This won’t be the first time to patch over difficulties. The Chinese Communist Party’s post-World War II support for communist movements in the region meant that diplomatic relations were not normalized until 1991. By 1995, the Mischief Reef incident triggered differences — then as now — over the South China Sea.

China responded, however, not with aggression but a “charm offensive.” The bold suggestion of a free trade agreement not only created Asia’s largest market; Beijing’s offer to give an “early harvest” of preferences showed empathy to the anxieties of smaller neighbors.

China emerged as ASEAN’s largest trade partner and closest collaborator. A longer arc across centuries shows that civilizational connections across the sea and land have been largely positive and peaceful. Yet, history can only do so much for present problems. While the ASEAN-China forum hosted by Thailand was largely positive, other voices and events intrude.

The Philippines and Vietnam are pushing for full negotiations on the Code of Conduct — not a more cautious “consultation.” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded to caution against “rushing.” There may be a point in managing expectations — the preceding Declaration of Conduct, after all, took the better part of a decade. There are more pressures today.

Manila recently bolstered its navy by accepting a Hamilton-class cutter from the United States — and Washington has said it will push China to speed up negotiations. Japan — with differences with China over islands further north — unveiled a naval destroyer that can carry and deploy helicopters. The 19,500 ton Izumo is its largest naval vessel since World War II.

For China itself, military modernization and spending continues apace. Nationalistic netizens will complain if their leaders seem too soft. If conflict is to be headed off, consultations on the South China Sea must move ahead and show sufficient progress.

In parallel, cooperation on navigation safety and the marine environment should progress. Most importantly, actual practices by military and other agencies in everyday exchange must emphasize prudence.

Otherwise, the best days for neighborly cooperation are past and all should prepare for rising competition and possible conflict. This can be further complicated by Japan and the U.S., two other major partners who have given ASEAN more attention of late.

There are issues beyond the South China Sea that both can work on together. There is need, for instance, for infrastructure and investment to connect between the two. Yet even positive steps will not be easy. The China of the 1990s has grown into a giant and the asymmetry of size and power makes many ASEAN members nervous.

To ease the way China must demonstrate a degree of magnanimity to assist ASEAN — especially the developing countries on its borders — without expecting to dominate them. For ASEAN, there must be wisdom to cooperate with China, while adroitly working with other major powers.

This will be crucial for two upcoming ASEAN-led efforts — the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The summit, to be hosted by Brunei, aims for a candid dialogue that helps build strategic trust in the Asia-Pacific. It can succeed only if all powers are equally welcome.

The RCEP similarly hubs around ASEAN and will bring in all of Asia — including India and Australia-New Zealand. It can only boost economic integration across the region if major economies — including China — show commitment.

In the wake of the region’s crisis of 1997, Asian cooperation grew and the ASEAN-Chia were key actors. The two must again see their cooperation as essential, rather than optional. Otherwise, Asia’s regionalism will falter.

The alternative is that security will continue to depend on the U.S. alliance system, while the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership for economic and trade integration takes center stage. This could negatively impact China and many ASEAN members that stand outside the TPP.

China may have differences with ASEAN and vice versa. But if Asians are to come together as a region, dealing with current problems and upgrading ASEAN-China cooperation will be essential.

Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, was invited to speak at the recent High Level ASEAN-China Forum held by the Thai government. SIIA will host the ASEAN Asia Forum on Sept. 12 to discuss key business-related issues in the region.

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