Tuesday, October 12, 2010

ASEAN, China and other vested Interests

LIKE a dog’s walking on its hind legs, an Asian defence ministers’ meeting surprises not for being done well, but being done at all. On October 12th defence ministers from the ten members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with America, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea convened in Hanoi.

Not much has yet come out of the meeting. But it may turn out to be an important building block in the region’s security architecture.

Already it has provided a forum for the two biggest armies in the region—America’s and China’s—to resume contacts. These were suspended by China in anger at America’s continued sales of arms to Taiwan. China, understandably, sees these as in breach of America’s 1982 promise gradually to reduce weapons sales.

In Hanoi, however, Robert Gates, America’s defence secretary, met his Chinese counterpart, General Liang Guanglie, and agreed to visit Beijing early next year to resume high-level military dialogue. Improved communication is in everyone’s interests, especially at a time when China’s maritime activities are causing regional alarm, and minor incidents could quickly get out of hand.

That is one reason why the meeting in Hanoi is important. China’s fierce response to the arrest by the Japanese authorities of a Chinese trawler captain, who had rammed two Japanese coastguard vessels in disputed waters, was closely watched in South-East Asia.

In the South China Sea, China (and Taiwan, whose claims mirror China’s) have various disputes: over the Paracel islands, which it occupies, but Vietnam claims; over other reefs and atolls; and over the Spratly chain, claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and, again, Vietnam.

China has published a map which shows virtually the whole sea as its own, giving rise to a potential further maritime dispute with Indonesia.

China has so far refused to discuss any of this in multilateral forums, preferring to pick off rival claimants one by one. Fears about its intentions are one factor behind a big boost in military spending in the region.

Egged on by some of the countries in the region, America weighed into this row in July, when Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, told the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), a talking-shop on security, that her country had a national interest in the sea (ie, the freedom of navigation), and would like to see peaceful, multilateral negotiations.

This attempt to “internationalise” the issue infuriated China, and the defence ministers meeting in Hanoi were unable to do more than air differences, at best. General Liang repeated China’s view that “practical co-operation within multilateral frameworks does not mean settling all security issues.” The meeting should cover “easier issues”. But it may already have encouraged China to ease tensions. As it opened, China was reported to have freed nine Vietnamese fisherman it detained last month.

If, as seems likely, the forum becomes a regular event, it offers one of the more hopeful bases for security co-operation. Its membership is at present confined to the countries admitted to the East Asia Summit, to be held later this month, also in Hanoi (though America and Russia will not formally join until next year).

This gives it a tighter focus than the ARF. It also helps explain why the European Union is so keen on membership of the summit—of the plethora of initials littering the calendar of regional leaders, the EAS may turn out to be one where a few things are actually decided. Banyan for The Economist

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