Sunday, March 21, 2010

The South China Sea will be next dispute to top Asean's agenda

SOONER OR LATER, the South China Sea issue could replace Burma as Asean's biggest challenge under the chairmanship of Vietnam.

From now on Burma can confidently pursue its seven-point road map without any pressure from its Asean peers as experienced in the previous four years under the chairs of Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Since assuming the Asean chair in January, Vietnam has been discreet and non-confrontational in taking up the Burmese political situation. Any new Asean initiative on Burma, particularly ahead of the upcoming election, would be difficult, if not impossible.

Vietnam is one of the strongest supporters of Asean's non-interference principle. When Vietnam chaired Asean in 1998 for the first time, three years after admission, Hanoi was very proud of its record in enhancing unity and unanimity within Asean.
Rangoon's confidence in the new Asean chair has been succinct. So far, it has done nothing to assure Asean and the international community that the first planned election in 20 years would be inclusive, free and fair. The junta does not need to do that as it will be a fait accompli eventually anyway. The five election laws issued last week were a shame. They banned the opposition party leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from taking part in the polls. As if the ban is not enough, the laws also require the National League of Democracy to expel her from the party.

Without her participation, the election is meaningless. But that is exactly what the regime wants.

Once the election is held - completely rigged and unaccounted for as it is expected to be - sometime this year, Asean would be the first to take note of the results and move on. The condemnation and outcries from the international community that follow will not dent the Asean consensus. In the past two decades, numerous campaigns against the junta leaders have not brought any change in the Rangoon regime's behaviour and policies. Another case in point was the latest call for a tribunal for crimes against humanity committed by the Burmese junta leaders which would in no way block the Burmese roadmap.

It is also foreseeable that Asean could even bolster Burma post election by allowing Rangoon to host the Asean chair - that it skipped in 2005 - next year or in 2012 when East Timor expects to join Asean. Although its resumption is not automatic, a consensus on this issue can easily be reached under Vietnam's tutelage. Asean's own interest would be served now that its pariah member has become a normal country, just completing an election like them. As such, if need be, Rangoon can now claim that the country is ready domestically to be the Asean chair.

Washington's efforts to alter the tedious course involving further dialogue and political consultation with Burma has not produced any desired results. Six months after a series of high-level meetings between officials of the US and Burma, hopes are dashed for a further easing of economic sanctions. The junta has recently turned down the planned visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, Kurt Campbell, to Rangoon for the second time. He might be able to get permission to go there later on.

Furthermore, Vietnam's own political development and the grouping's mixed record of electoral process literally shut off further initiatives, even comments, on post-election Burma. If opportunities arise, however, the junta leaders would prefer to credit Vietnam's leading role in Asean for playing down Burma's crisis. In 2006, Hanoi played a pivotal role in breaking down the EU imposed restrictions on Burma and successfully pushed it as a member of the Asia Europe Meeting.

Unmistakably, after 15 years of Asean membership, Vietnam has affirmed its position and prestige for being the driving force of new members Laos, Burma and Cambodia. Asean this year will have to deal with a more pressing issue�the dispute in the South China Sea and future cooperation over it. After the signing in 2002 of a Declaration of Conduct of Concerned Parties in South China Sea between China and Asean in Phnom Penh, this sensitive issue has been kept under wrap for the past eight years. Absence of progress on confidence and trust building measures among claimants in the disputed areas, which covers Spratlys, Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoals, has now become the biggest sore spot in Asean-China relations.

Since 1997, Asean as a group has called for respecting the status quo of the disputed islands and avoiding any action that would complicate the situation. But truth be told, some claimants have not followed their promises and exercised self-restraint. They have occupied some islets and build up new constructions. The claimants apparently do not honour the non-legal binding document. Asean and China remain at loggerheads, as they have for the past several years, to transform this declaration into a binding code of conduct.

Obviously, overall sentiment among the Asean claimants and non-claimants has also changed over times. Back in March 1995, Asean was quite united against China's position over the Mischief Reefs.

Their strong joint statement jolted China's confidence and assertiveness which helped to set forth the future direction of Asean-China engagement for the next 15 years and beyond.

As China rises rapidly in terms of regional and global clout, any discussion on the Asean future course of action, whatever it is or may be, would no longer find uniformity. Non-claimant members such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines- a claimant- prefer the current arrangement with ongoing talks without the issue being "multilateralised" by including it in the summit's agenda. The question is: Can Asean muster the courage and collectively negotiate with China as it used to do? Or, is it better to keep the issue as benign as before without making a stir? As for Vietnam's strategy during its chair, Hanoi will actively put forward concrete measures to implement the declaration on a step-by-step basis, starting from feasible and less-sensitive matters, especially those contained in Articles 5 and 6 without touching on the life and death issue involving overlapping sovereignty.

Asean's latest common position on China was the refusal to accept Beijing's eagerness to sign the Southeast Asia Nuclear Free Zone Treaty two years ago. Asean wanted all the big five to sign it simultaneously. In other words, Asean no longer accords preferential treatment to Beijing as it used to. In months to come, their relations will be more business-like with more assertiveness from both sides.

Another new challenge will be the current drought along the Mekong River. China has dismissed allegations that its series of huge dam construction has caused the water shortages in the lower Mekong region. China and Burma will take part as dialogue partners at the summit among the Mekong riparian countries planned for April 2-5 in Hua Hin. It could set a new benchmark between China and the Mekong lower riparian states, which are also Asean members. By Kavi Chongkittavorn for The Nation

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