China recently announced that it had reached a consensus on the South China Sea with three members of Asean. What could be wrong with that? That would be fine, actually, if Asean had only three members. But Asean has ten full-fledged members and seven weren’t consulted on that consensus.
Take a look at the substance of that consensus. First, it says that there’s no dispute between Asean and China on the South China Sea and that disagreements between individual Asean members and China should not affect Asean-China relations. That’s correct.
Second, according to the consensus, countries have the right to choose how to resolve their disputes according to international law. That, too, is correct. But then it adds that the “imposition of a unilateral approach” would be wrong. Does that refer to the Philippines going before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to seek clarification on the merits of China’s claim to virtually all of the South China Sea?
If so, the consensus misses the point. For the Philippine case before the PCA isn’t intended to resolve any territorial or sovereignty dispute between the Philippines and China. Since it is all about the validity of the nine-dash line and the nature of the geographic features enclosed by that line, the case is a matter of interest to all nations that subscribe to and would make use of freedom of navigation. Just because China refuses to take part in the PCA legal proceedings does not make the Philippine suit an “imposition of a unilateral approach.”
Third, the consensus says that according to Article IV of the DOC, parties in the South China Sea should resolve their territorial and sovereignty disputes through dialogue and consultation. That’s right on the money. The devil is in how China behaves when a party attempts to engage it in bilateral negotiation. As I remember, the Philippines tried to engage China in such a dialogue but nothing much happened because China treated the Philippines as a supplicant and not as an equal negotiating partner.
It’s not yet too late. Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, front-runner in the current Philippine presidential elections, has broadly hinted that he’s willing to renew bilateral talks with China when he gets to be president. If China is itself willing to negotiate as an equal toward a win-win solution, no Philippine president will pass up the chance to peacefully resolve his country’s territorial dispute with China.
And fourth, the consensus says that Asean and China are capable enough of jointly safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea. Well said. And China can substantiate this assertion by promptly concluding with Asean a Code of Conduct (COC) on parties in the South China Sea.
Then the consensus hastens to add that external parties should play a constructive role, instead of the reverse. What does that mean? Does that mean that the navies of the US, Japan, India and Australia should stay away from the disputed waters of the South China Sea? If so, it’s an unrealistic expectation. So long as China keeps reclaiming geographic features and militarizing them, then so long will external powers feel called upon to carry out “freedom of navigation operations” and to show China that it isn’t the only boy in the playground that has military muscle.
What’s China up to anyway? Soon after the announcement of the consensus, Bilahari Kausikan of the Singapore ministry of foreign affairs commented that this could be seen as China’s way of dividing Asean before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) could rule on the merits of China’s nine-dash line and its claim to virtually all of the South China Sea. Former Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong, now Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, added that the consensus was tantamount to China meddling in Asean internal affairs.
That raised China’s hackles. Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin asked Singapore to explain the statements of its two senior diplomats. In fact it’s China that has some explaining to do.
For starters, why is it only China that’s announcing the consensus? Why is it doing all the talking for all four states involved? And if the consensus were as non-controversial and well intentioned as China claims it to be, why didn’t China go for a full Asean-China consensus? Instead, it roped in just three, two of which are seen by many as its clients.
One of them, Laos, happens to be the current chair of Asean. If the maelstrom of controversy surrounding the consensus gained velocity, then the credibility of Laos as chair of Asean would be severely compromised. So would be the credibility of Asean centrality.
An Asean diminished by dissensions, including one fostered by China, will not stay relevant for long. In that event, everybody will lose, including China, which would be bereft of a robust and credible partner in the South China Sea. Instead it will have several individual claimants forever diplomatically swarming like a bunch of wasps against its position on the South China Sea.
It won’t enjoy the kind of peace possible only with a strong and united Asean partner in the region. And worse, the external powers that China wishes would stay away from the South China Sea would have all the more reason to carry out freedom of navigation operations (fonops) on a perennial basis.
The smart thing for China to do right now is to speedily conclude a COC with Asean and thus prove for good that it can deal constructively with an Asean that’s united like a true community. An early COC would restore some of the credibility that Asean lost as a result of the unfortunate consensus and to some extent refurbish China’s fading claim to a peaceful rise.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy.
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