It was amazing that given their cordial ties, China and Asean took almost a decade to agree on the guidelines for their conducts over the disputes South China Sea.
With it, they can now begin to work together on various confident building measures and joint proposed projects in the huge unsettled maritime territory.
Meeting ahead of their foreign ministers in Bali recently, the Asean-Chinese senior officials crossed the last hurdle on the following sentence in the paragraph 2 of the guidelines: “The Parties of DOC will continue to promote dialogue and consultations in accordance with the spirit of the DOC.”
The Declaration of Code of Conduct of Concerned Parties in South China Sea, or DOC in short, was agreed in 2002 in Phnom Penh as a means to peaceful settlement of the conflict and for future cooperation among all claimants comprising China, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. Asean hopes to transform the declaration to a binding code of conduct in the near future.
At Bali, China and Asean decided to drop their previous demands which blocked past negotiations. Asean, especially Vietnam, consistently asked to put in black and white that Asean members “would consult among themselves before meeting with China.” Having fought numerous wars with China throughout thousands of years of coexistence, Vietnam wanted the dispute be settled between China and Asean as a group. China does not accept this formulation with the argument that the problem is between China and the Asean claimants. In the beginning, Beijing wanted the whole sentence deleted altogether but changed its mind last month. The frequently asked question was: why both side agreed now? Four reasons stand out.
First, the political landscape in the region has changed dramatically due to intense participation from the US after its 2009 ascension to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and China. Other powers such as India and Russia are also interested but they are more benign. Therefore, China no longer enjoys exclusive relations with Asean. At the forthcoming East Asia Summit in mid-November, their real strategic interests would be revealed through issues they bring up. For instance, in the areas of maritime security, they can raise future challenges of keeping the disputed area free and safe. The current chair, Indonesia, must also address pivotal issues pertaining to Asean maritime security needs.
Second, China knew all along that the conflict would get a huge play when Asean was under the Vietnamese tutelage last year. But it had little influence with its lobbying efforts even though Hanoi was also the coordinator of Asean-China ties. When Thailand chaired Asean in 2009, the hosts did play down the dispute, reiterating it was the bilateral issue between China and Asean. The results of Asean meeting in Bali last month has also cooled down the rhetoric.
Now China is looking forward to lesser stressful three years from now on, which it would use the period to shape anew future Asean-China ties. What the next Asean chair, Cambodia, plans to do will be pivotal. Granted their excellent ties with Beijing since 2000, Phnom Penh’s attitude on the dispute would be extremely cautious to avoid any label of internationalization. It will be closely watched by its claimant neighbors. When Brunei chairs Asean in 2013, obviously there will not be any disruption of Asean-China ties albeit it is one of the claimants. So is 2014 whether it will be Burma’s turn or other members’.
Third, the Chinese and Asean leaders have pledged all along that as strategic dialogue partnership, they would work together to promote peace and prosperity in the region. Both have been embarrassed by the lack of progress in the past nine years over the troubled sea. Worse, this year supposes to be the zenith of their friendship marking the 20th anniversary. So, the only consolidation is to agree on the guome to shoves – in front of enthusiastic and spectators – they would diligently iron out differences.
In 2006 in Shinya, China, they agreed on a series of joint cooperation project but they were not implemented. Unfortunately, high-octane negativism dominated the first half of this year. Strong verbal exchanges and assertive diplomatic endeavors are visible from key claimants. China’s quarrels with the Philippines and Vietnam were considered low points of the Asean-China ties since March 1995 over the Mischief Reefs. Lesson learnt is clear: China and Asean can no longer arguing back and forth endlessly over the prospects of their cooperation over the South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam are not willing to stay idle.
Fourth, the reduction of US-China diplomatic tension also impacts on the region. As the Asean chair last year, Vietnam helped to refocus the South China Sea quagmire. The loud decibel since last July was due to the strong US reactions which immediately wiping up interests and potential dangers in the South China Sea. Strange as it may see, this brinkmanship game has already subdued as the two superpowers addressing their more important broader strategic issues including financial cooperation. Current US fiscal crisis does not in anyway strengthening its positions and policies in the Asean scheme of things. Quite noticeable, US State Secretary Hilary Clinton comments on South China Sea in Bali were far more friendly and positive than the previous year so was Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s responses.
Beyond the above political maneuverings, any legal solution will essentially depend on the claimants’ overall intention. There is no consensus at the moment. Several ideas have been floated ranking from the outside arbitrator such as the International Court of Justice to the one of its own, the High Council under the TAC as conflicting partners are all signatories. Any of them can raise the issue at the council, which has never been invoked. For the time being, the ideal peaceful solution is to skip the sovereignty claims and revisit what they agreed previously – no matter how little – and seriously implement them as soon as possible. Otherwise, the undercurrent can turn into a tsunami at the most unpredictable time!.