Upset waters need Asean, China unity
The conflict over the South China Sea will certainly shape future relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), China and the United States. So far, the inability to find a solution to the conflict has already tainted the reputation of Asean, which has often claimed its success in maintaining regional order.
Recently, an attempt to seek a solution was made. Representatives from Asean and China met for an informal discussion on the contentious South China Sea issue in Pattaya, ahead of the upcoming Asean Summit to be held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from 15-20 Nov.
Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan reportedly said "good signs" were emerging from the informal talks. "Now both sides are saying we want to get [a code of conduct] done as soon as possible because it doesn't serve anybody's interests [to delay]. It's a yo-yo but at least now they agree to talk," Mr Surin said.
He also added, "Both sides display a sense of urgency that we can't let the world live in this sense of anxiety and not knowing which direction we are going to go _ it could spill out into the open, it could become violent."
Observers are however less optimistic about the prospect of a breakthrough anytime soon. Asean and China had dealt with the dispute through the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which called for "dialogue, confidence building and cooperative measures". One of the key components of the declaration was the clause stipulating that countries should refrain from taking action "that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including ... refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features".
So far, the DOC has proved extremely difficult to implement. The objective of all countries involved regarding the South China Sea is essentially to prevent conflict. But it is extremely unlikely that there would be a grand solution to what is a matter, for the individual states concerned, of strategic national interest. In this light, none of the claimants is prepared to compromise on territorial issues. To prevent the disputes from escalating, the Asean states and China should therefore play their parts. This is, again, easier said than done.
Amidst this complicated matter, the role of the United States is crucial. The rise of China both economically and militarily and a potential US-China strategic competition has made the environment for addressing the South China Sea disputes even murkier. Only American support for the China-Asean dialogue and a peaceful dispute settlement can have a positive impact.
It is important to point out that the tensions have increased over the last two years, as assertions of sovereignty have risen, with incidents ranging from Chinese intimidation of oil and gas firms operating in the South China Sea and disagreements over fisheries territories to military activities in general.
Included in these is China's declaration that the South China Sea is a part of its "core interest", implying that it is not ruling out the use of force in the area. In turn, the United States proclaimed the South China Sea as being in its national interest with respect to freedom of navigation and respect for international law. Both stances have brought about mixed reactions from Asean member states that have seemingly been caught in the crossfire while trying to maintain peace and stability in their immediate surroundings. Here, the United States has benefited from Asean countries' perceived mistrust of China. Professor Aileen Baviera of the Philippines suggests that Asean will need to combine tactical hedging and strategic balancing/containment.
Today, the state of play seems as if has changed. All parties need to take stock of the new challenges, and opportunities, arising from the growth of China and the dynamics of China-US relations. One way in which to address this is to foster closer cooperation in areas such as fisheries, oil and gas, and marine life. There is a danger that the disputes could deteriorate into a proxy for great power conflict and this should be avoided at all costs.
At the Asean Summit this year, it is expected that the Code of Conduct (COC) would be adopted by Asean and China. The COC will provide more concrete steps towards managing South China Sea territorial disputes to ensure a long-lasting regional peace and security.
Aside from the complicated relationship between China and the United States, the key problem is also with Asean, particularly the lack of its common position vis-a-vis the South China Sea disputes. There are only four claimants in Asean _ Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. While these four states are keen on dealing with China with the backing of Asean, other non-claimants continue to sit on the fence because they do not want to offend the Chinese leadership.
Cambodia, Asean's chair this year, has demonstrated that its intimate relationship with China and interests to be gained from it, are more precious and must not be jeopardised. In the past decade, China has actively made inroads into Cambodia, showering the Hun Sen government with massive investments and technical and financial assistance. The fact that Asean failed to issue a statement on the South China Sea at the last Asean Ministerial Meeting in July was partly due to the reluctance on the Cambodian part.
Thus, to reach a consensus on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the political willingness and commitment of all parties involved is vital. While critics have perceived the DOC as a toothless document, it has represented the only available mechanism for Asean and China to work on. Besides, the adoption of the COC will be so important that it could make or break the future political community of Asean, due to be fulfilled in 2015.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.