Friday, June 20, 2014

Being a vassal state of China, it is not easy for Vietnam to maintain an equal relationship with its giant neighbor

The shadows of the northern Middle Kingdom will always undermine Hanoi’s political gesture in finding viable political and security solutions on the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

At the same time, the Vietnamese government realizes that ASEAN will not guarantee any political or security answers to China’a assertiveness, which has also been projected toward the Philippines and Japan.

Since the ASEAN-China agreement on the Declaration of Conduct (DoC) in the South China Sea was signed in 2002, the issues of overlapping claims of empty islands and reefs have been pinned down by Beijing in the name of historical claims and the nine dash lines, which the major power says originated from the previous Kuomintang government (with eleven lines) before being ousted from mainland China after losing the civil war against the communists in 1949.

It is not of ASEAN’s interest to condemn Beijing over Chinese ships ramming into Vietnamese boats, which have increased tensions in the South China Sea. The lowest common consensus that ASEAN can achieve is acknowledging the incident by not mentioning the parties involved, but at the same time, ASEAN officials have agreed on Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s proposal to bridge the issue and contact the Chinese side to resolve tensions through common conflict resolution.

This is what has been perceived as the ASEAN way of solving delicate political and security issues — deemed by Western analysts and politicians as the wrong approach. But these Western analysts need to understand that traditional Western diplomacy, as seen with the Crimean issues in condemning and sanctioning Russia, did not immediately work. The approach not only failed to stop Crimea’s annexation but also complicated Ukraine-related issues.

The other ASEAN way of resolving political and security disputes among Asian nations is through informal meetings to discuss and analyze common interests with a step-by-step approach to reach an agreed upon resolution. In Indonesia, we call it gotong royong (literally meaning cooperation without reservations).

This was the case of the Jakarta Informal Meeting in the early 1990s, which was aimed at helping Asian nations solve the Cambodian problems after the end of Vietnam War.

This formula can be applied to the ongoing tensions related to the South China Sea. I would like to call it “The Southeast Asian Informal Meeting on the ASEAN Sea”.

The ASEAN Sea was a term coined by Riefqi Muna, a political scientist from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), to project political and security communities of the ASEAN Community 2015 and to immediately distance Southeast Asia from China’s sphere of influence amid its competition with the US to formulate a new concept of big power relations.

The format of Southeast Asian informal meeting should be proposed by Indonesia, inviting the parties of interest, such as the four ASEAN members with overlapping claims in the ASEAN Sea e.g. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam as well as China and Taiwan. Since this is not an official ASEAN meeting, ASEAN secretary-general Le Luong Minh and other ASEAN members in this informal meeting should attend as observers.

If China disagrees and refuses to participate in this informal “chit-chat”, then we can expect Taiwan to attend. Taiwan’s role is pivotal as it can describe the meaning of the original eleven dash lines that the Kuomintang created in 1947.

Since this is an informal meeting, Taiwan’s participation will not jeopardize the “One China Policy”, which every country in the world upholds.

Besides, the political process ongoing between Beijing and Taipei since the Wang-Zhang meeting last February in Nanjing will certainly change the whole geopolitical landscape. A conclusion during the informal meeting between “One China” leaders of Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou was reached then.

There is no agenda in this informal meeting. They can directly touch on the ASEAN Sea dispute or explain their positions in accordance to their national interests. If Chinese and Taiwanese leaders refuse to attend, then information or ideas can be exchanged on how to cope with Beijing’s efforts to balkanize the cohesiveness of Southeast Asia .

We need to regionalize the rising South China Sea tensions that have been suppressed by China, which insists that the territorial dispute is a bilateral affair. China’s aggressive position did undermine ASEAN’s attempts to formulate the code of conduct that would bind all claimant countries. Regionalization of the issue is aimed at negotiating common solutions.

This informal meeting will prove that the region’s cohesiveness will grow stronger when Southeast Asian countries can produce gotong royong solutions to common threats by strengthening ASEAN centrality for common prosperity.

Through decades of common understanding of non-interference on national interests and mutual consensus, Southeast Asia will become the most dynamic region in the world if it can maintain and develop equilibrium among nations, and Southeast Asia can expect the same equilibrium from big countries inside and outside the region.

The writer
René L Pattiradjawane, Jakarta is a senior journalist and chair of the foundation for the Center for Chinese Studies, Jakarta

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