Tuesday, May 31, 2011

South China Sea disputes a threat to Asean-China relations

After 15 years of discreet and patient diplomacy over overlapping claims for the South China Sea, both Asean and China are showing signs of fatigue as there has been no progress yet towards a resolution or joint development schemes. Alleged intrusions and confrontations in the resource-rich maritime territory by various claimants have increased over the past two years.

The most serious incident occurred on March 2 when the Philippine oil exploration ship, MV Veritas Voyager, was harassed by Chinese Navy patrol boats at Reed Bank, near the Philippines. It topped the agenda when the visiting Chinese Defence Minister Gen Liang Guanlie visited the Philippines last week. The incident immediately brought back memories of March 1995, when the Philippines confronted China after the discovery of new structures in the Mischief Reefs, which subsequently led Asean to issue a joint statement, the first and the only one, expressing "serious concern" over Beijing's action.

Over the years, there were high hopes that the Declaration of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 would not only encourage the claimants to restrain from any activity that would destabilise the whole region but help to resolve issues related the territorial sovereignty. Somehow the longstanding pledge for the promotion of trust-building measures and mutually beneficial cooperation have continued to be an elusive goal over the past nine years.

One stumbling block remains the wording of implementing guidelines of the 2002 document, which was agreed on when bilateral relations were at a zenith. The Asean claimants, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and China were still fighting over them when senior officials last met in Medan, Indonesia. Given the current tension and growing mutual suspicion, especially between China and Vietnam/Philippines, it is doubtful if they will be able to finalise the guidelines in time for next year's 10th commemoration in Phnom Penh, when Cambodia chairs the 20th Asean summit. Their collective assertiveness shows that the disputes in the South China Sea represent core national interests.

More than conflicting parties like to admit, the relatively benign environment which Asean and China used to enjoy tackling the South China Sea problem since Mischief Reef in 1995 effectively ended last July. The dispute got an international stamp when the US State Secretary Hilary Clinton raised the issue openly on the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea and expressed strong support for the Asean document. Furthermore, the US also offered to facilitate diplomatic efforts to find a resolution. From that moment, China and the Asean claimants knew full well that their disagreements have been thrown into the international spotlight — after they had been kept under wraps for the past 15 years.

China was quite happy to continue negotiating with Asean over the guidelines without intervention from other players. Back in 1994, when China was still a consultative partner of Asean, visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen told his Asean counterparts in Brunei Darusalam that Asian countries must solve their problems in an Oriental Way. Somehow this approach rings hollow and does not bode well in the current atmosphere. The lack of progress and the claimants' growing presence and visible physical structures has provided a raison d'etre for the Asean claimants, in particular Vietnam and the Philippines, to harden their pursuit of more tangible outcomes. To add fuel to the fire, last week, the two Asean countries agreed to work on a joint exploration project for oil and gas in the disputed areas.

Previously, the Asean claimants and China held bilateral negotiations trying to craft collaborative frameworks that would be acceptable to both sides — settling sovereignty issues with Asean claimants and overall cooperation with all Asean members. Unfortunately, some claimants viewed the exercise as a foot-dragging tactic to further strengthen presence in claimed islands or islets. At the moment, Vietnam occupies 23 islets while China and Malaysia occupy seven each. The Philippines has claimed the so-called Kalayaan Island group made up of 54 islands, reefs and shoals.

Last July in Hanoi, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was visibly upset when the South China Sea issue was brought up and discussed openly at the Asean Regional Forum. It was a radical departure from the modus operandi agreed at the Huangzhou meeting between China and Asean in April 1995, with both sides keeping the dispute under wraps. At this hill resort meeting, Asean for the first time jointly called on China to be more transparent about claims over the South China Sea including the significance of the nine-dot line. The lack of better answers and practice gradually pushed the Asean claimants to ditch bilateral frameworks. The fact that the dispute received wider international attention last year was also partly attributed to the Asean chair's diplomatic manoeuvrability.

One immediate consequence of this shift may be a less polite (bu ke qi in putonghua) attitude and policy by China towards Asean. It is currently in a reset mode. Beijing views Asean's positions over the guidelines as problematic and undermining its claims for sovereignty. With Asean members juggling their positions between claimants and non-claimants as well as China's ambivalence to Asean as a whole, relations between the grouping and the regional power will be severely tested from now on.

Without a law-binding code of conduct, it is hard to foresee long-term peace and stability in the region's maritime territory. The whole scheme of things is further complicated by the new strategic landscape with the rise of China and its navy fleet, as well as the US's proactive engagement in Asia. As such, it is not hard to envisage other non-claimant players or facilitators wanting to guarantee the safety of sea lanes for vital mercantile activities.

Finally, if the ongoing disputes are not properly handled, it will have huge spill-over effects on broader China-US rivalry in this region. The Philippines is a treaty ally of the US, as are Japan and South Korea, which also have overlapping claims on islands with China. For instance, a small incidental armed attack in the Kalayaan Island chain could easily turn ugly amid growing China-US rivalry. The Philippine government is confident that any attack on a Filipino ship in areas under its administration is a direct attack on the US, as stipulated in its defence treaty with the US. By Kavi ChongkittavornThe Nation, Bangkok

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