Over the past several years, tensions in the South China Sea over conflicting territorial claims between Asean states and China have become Southeast Asia's thorniest obstacle for regional peace and prosperity.
But now a confluence of domestic and regional enabling conditions appears more promising for a workable resolution of the overlapping claims between Asean and China.
Prospects for a peaceful resolution seem more viable now than in the recent past, although key contentious issues remain to be worked out.
As country coordinator for Asean-China relations during 2012-15, Thailand will have to play an assertive brokering role to implement the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and to secure the more permanent and institutionalised rules-based Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) that is acceptable to the diverse and overlapping interests in the region. The short window of coordination means that if a concrete COC is not in place by 2015, prospects for a peaceful resolution may sour inexorably thereafter.
Of all the non-claimant mainland states in Southeast Asia, Thailand most aptly fits the bill as moderator and broker between Asean claimant states of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam on the one hand, and China on the other.
Singapore and Indonesia are maritime states without the right profiles to act as honest brokers. For the non-claimants, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have baggage and constraints, unable to act effectively as a go-between. Thailand holds a special relationship with China; the Bangkok-Beijing organic and centuries-old axis is conducive to Thai brokerage of both the DOC implementation and COC formulation. No other Asean state gets along as well with China without being a Beijing client of sorts.
Thus it has come to Thailand as a founding state and birthplace of Asean to come up with a regional document that China and Asean claimants can agree to. Settling regional disputes has been a famous Thai diplomatic trait. For instance, when Asean was formed, it was the Thai deft touch to mitigate and mediate a conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia that catalysed the original five Asean states to converge and cohere.
While Thailand has traditionally played a lead role in Asean, sometimes as broker and mediator, Bangkok has been relatively out of action on its foreign engagements for much of the past decade owing to its domestic political conflicts and turmoil. Thailand's domestic political adversity has not gone away, but it has reached a plateau _ a sort of new normal _ where its diplomacy and foreign policy agenda can be pursued with some thrust once again.
Last year, Thailand's stewardship of the DOC and COC appeared tentative, perhaps because the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was still insecure about its post-election power. The ruling Pheu Thai Party won the election in July 2011 by a wide margin, but its forerunners in similar electoral situations had been stymied and derailed in prior years. The Yingluck government was also consumed by the floods after the election. In 2012, the domestic scene remained topsy-turvy, beset by street protests. The government's foreign policy consequently lacked direction and forward movement.
But as weeks and months accumulate into more than two years, past the midway mark of its four-year term, the government has become more confident on policy directions. Its domestic policy agenda from the mega-infrastructure spending and flood prevention to the annual budget outlay has faced persistent criticism. As she has become the most frequently travelled Thai leader, Ms Yingluck also has come under criticism for wasting taxpayers' money. There is no end to anti-government criticism that is rooted in the ways Thailand has changed over the past decade. Some see these changes as an overdue deliverance, others as manipulated usurpation.
Either way, there is enough political stability in Thailand now to have a foreign policy drive again. That the Yingluck government is not seen as well-versed on foreign affairs also enables Thai diplomats to play a greater role in policy and strategy formulation and to display a measure of autonomy and characteristic professionalism. Front and centre in their tasks is how to navigate the Asean-China rough sea.
In a series of Asean-China discussions that featured the 9th Asean-China Joint Working Group on the DOC and the 6th Senior Officials' Meeting in Suzhou, culminating with the Asean-China summit in Brunei next month, China has shown more flexibility on implementing the DOC and broaching the terms of the COC. Even though it is less intransigent and less belligerent, China's posture is likely to be seen by Asean claimants to be insufficient and designed to buy time, going along but agreeing to none fundamentally.
The biggest issue is whether China would abandon its unilateral nine-dashed line map which virtually claims the entire South China Sea and whether Beijing would submit itself to a rules-based region in recognition of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). These are contentious issues that Thailand as coordinator will have to tackle next year.
Yet the Chinese leadership is showing more pragmatism and good sense than last year when China was seen as splitting Asean during Cambodia's chairmanship when the 10-member organisation failed to issue a joint statement after its annual summit. The absence of a written joint position due to differences over the inclusion of the South China Sea was an unprecedented setback for Asean. Cambodia was deplored by some of the Asean claimants as doing Beijing's bidding, and China was perceived as getting its way at Asean's expense.
Now Beijing, under new Foreign Minister Wang Yi, appears to have changed tack, exhibiting more flexibility but not making key concessions. China's willingness to broach the COC in concrete terms and to press ahead with the DOC implementation should be welcome. For now, Asean prioritises three key areas, namely the cultivation of trust, the prevention of disputes, and the resolution of disputes if needed in a manner that safeguards security in the South China Sea. Maritime cooperation on search and rescue and the establishment of a hotline to address urgent disputes have also made progress. For the Asean claimants that are anxious and insecure about Chinese intentions in the South China Sea, they need to back off a little to provide space for coordination and to further entice China to play by the rules.
That the United States is now mired in the Syrian crisis and President Barack Obama has made major policy investments in the Middle East early in his second term may bode well for South China Sea management. The first Obama administration made a huge mark on Asia, as indicated by Mr Obama declaring himself a "Pacific" president and highlighted by the US's new strategy of "rebalance" and "Asian pivot".
The credibility and commitment of America's rebalance towards Asia will likely face scrutiny and doubt the more Washington puts down its stakes in the Middle East. Apart from Syria, the US is still trying to pull out of its unpopular war in Iraq, managing the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, and restarting the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The US's engagement in Asia under Obama II will likely be less pronounced and felt than under Obama I. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was a familiar face in Southeast Asia but her successor John Kerry much less so. President Obama will come for the regional summit season, but his mind will be focused on other regions and priorities more than on Asia as was the case in his first term.
This means Asean is more on its own and will face more growing pains. Yet from this challenge of China's nuanced assertiveness and America's distractions and shifting priorities Asean may be forced to get its act together and keep it together. Thailand, as a US treaty ally, China's special partner, Asean founder, and trusted friend to all major powers in the region, has its work cut out on the South China Sea. It will be a test for 21st-century Thai diplomacy where Thailand's domestic setting is more democratic and unruly.
Thailand has to be prepared to broker hard and leverage its diplomatic and political capital for the effective implementation of the DOC and for the formulation and codification of the COC. Doing it right means Bangkok will have to ruffle some feathers of friends and partners in our neighbourhood. But as long as this is done in a fair and judicious fashion, it is likely to yield a tangible, comprehensive, acceptable outcome for regional peace and stability.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor of International Political Economy and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.