Challenge and opportunity for Asean

17 August, 2013
As appeared in

At the end of July, it was reported by China’s CCTV that President Xi Jinping had said at a meeting of the country’s Politburo that Beijing wished to put aside the territorial sea disputes with a number of neighbours, and to seek joint maritime development in disputed waters.

Of course, he also said China would not compromise or budge on its sovereign claims, which is not surprising. Even in China, politics is the art of the possible.

A lot has taken place, especially in the last couple of years; incidents at sea, assertion of rights and occupation of disputed islands, bitter verbal exchanges between some of the disputants. Nationalist emotion had been aroused. It is not easy to roll all that back without it being described as capitulation. So anyone proposing a time out will have to watch his back.

However, there does appear to be a diplomatic effort by China to move on peaceably. At the Asean plus summits in Brunei at the beginning of July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated the South China Sea disputes were not the entirety of Asean-China relations.

Not a new point by Beijing to be sure, but it has been followed up by Wang Yi in Bangkok at the 10th anniversary of Asean-China Strategic Partnership on Aug 2 with a proposal on how the South China Sea disputes could be addressed.

He proposed three simultaneous ways. First, an agreement is to be forged through consultation and negotiation between direct parties concerned. Second, the countries involved to continue to implement the Declaration on Conduct (DOC) of 2002 while “gradually” pushing forward consultations on the Code of Conduct (COC) – which is not a solution but to safeguard peace and stability in the region.

And finally, to search for ways of common exploitation not just, he said, for economic interest but to signal to other parts of the world that countries in the region are willing to solve their disputes cooperatively.

Although not quite a breakthrough, it is a positive development. China has blown hot and cold before. As with individuals in disputes, there will be memories of the other party’s actions and utterances which will be dragged out. With China, its rather bellicose actions of the past two years have been scary for the Philippines and Vietnam and worrying to other regional states. Whether China had succumbed to uncontrolled domestic nationalist sentiment, had responded unsteadily to the US pivot to the region, or had acted recklessly in particular situations, are matters that should be put aside now, and if, China has taken the initiative to find a way out of a situation that was getting worse and worse.

We must not forget that China too has its grievances, such as the occupation of disputed islets and atolls that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, or of alleged aggressive action by Philippine or Vietnamese vessels. Of course the Chinese version is always disputed but, China feels, not those of its adversaries. In a row, this could go on and on.

The important thing is not to wait and see, the kind of diplomatic drift that often characterises Asean actions in the political-security sphere, but to test the China’s apparent good intentions. The Asean-China “consultations” that will take place in Beijing at the end of August on the COC are obviously going to be an occasion to gauge it, but necessary, as it is the COC is not sufficient to ensure a more durable and stable situation in the South China Sea.

Diplomatic drift

It is not going to be a straight line. Already, almost in the same breath, the word from Beijing is for Asean not to expect too much from the COC consultations.

And every day, if South China Sea developments are followed closely, there are unfriendly, or at least not helpful activities, such as the boosting of naval capabilities, greater surveillance, engagement of outside powers and populist statements against the other recalcitrant party.

If there is diplomatic drift and the COC, first mentioned over 10 years ago, still remains in the works, a miscalculation or an incident from which there can be no retreat, can cause a conflagration which could get out of hand. Thus an opening such as China’s recent initiative should be seized by Asean.

The trouble is Asean has made many utterances but has not got a clear policy on the South China Sea disputes beyond the COC which has become another of the Asean mantras, something with merit uttered again and again until it dulls the mind on how to move further forward.

With no policy, there cannot be a strategy on how to achieve a set of objectives. Now that China has come up with the outlines of a policy for the South China Sea, Asean has to meet and to strategise, not wait for another rigid set-piece summit.

It is not clear how far Asean foreign ministers discussed China’s most recent overture at their meeting in Hua Hin last Wednesday as their statement after it still concentrated on the COC.

Another problem is Asean does not move fast enough. There is no machinery that not only has worked out a certain strategy but can also follow through expeditiously.

Asean Blueprint

The Asean Blueprint on the Political-Security community makes mention of the South China Sea disputes but only in general terms and does not provide for a mechanism to pursue the matter in real time, not just in response to initiatives such as China’s just now, but also to do preparatory work on how to take the matter forward in the region’s best interest. And, while Thailand is the coordinator of Asean-China relations, does its mandate include attending to the South China Sea situation, or is it just limited to organising meetings and events which all Asean countries do well enough?

The chair of Asean of course has a responsibility to steer the Asean ship in between the big meetings, but no clear accountability if it does not do so. Some are more active than others, as Indonesia was in 2011, and Cambodia in a different way last year. Brunei takes a gentler approach this year, which is quietly effective but not proactive enough. God knows what Myanmar is going to be like next year.

The Asean secretariat is purely administrative in nature, primarily an arranger of meetings, the number of which puts Asean neck and neck with the EU. Its budget is ridiculously small. And while there is better recognition of the Secretary-General in the Asean Charter, it does not give enough support for him to be able to act independently, even if just intellectually.

Of course it could be said it is up to the individual claimant states how they responded to Wang Yi’s overture. There are some problems here. The Asean claimants also have overlapping claims against one another. Additionally, if there was no common Asean position, China could pick out one or other states as being recalcitrant, or play off one Asean state against another. This is realpolitik and there is no point tearing our hair out if it happens – especially if Asean is not prepared, has no common position, while screaming it has a central role.

Already, it is interesting to note the Chinese foreign minister has said the COC was disrupted by “some individual party’s behaviour…China does not want to see that happen again.” Clearly aimed at the Philippines, it implies the Philippines was in the wrong in the Scarborough Shoal stand-off last year; but it could also be construed as directed at Manila’s greater defence engagement of the US and its referral of the issues surrounding the South China Sea disputes, particularly China’s dine-dash line, to the International Law of the Sea Tribunal, which China bitterly opposes.

It is interesting, too, to note Wang Yi stressed solving disputes through negotiations on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law, the two being “equally” important, neither neglected. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), it is clearly stated historical claims cannot form the basis of sovereign right. While Asean states and China are signatories of the Unclos, what does Asean make of this Chinese position?

It is not an impossible position as there could be a regional compact on joint development which does not take a view on strict law, meaning the issue of sovereignty will never be solved, as the benefits of joint development are implanted in the regional genes. An agreement committing the cooperating states to clear obligations and a regional dispute settlement mechanism could under-pin such an arrangement.

The thing is there is no common Asean position on all these intricate matters and there will be a disjointed response to China’s proposal on the way forward on the South China Sea disputes. Asean must have a mechanism, perhaps a high-level Standing Committee not subsumed by bureaucratic predisposition, which is alive to live issues affecting regional peace and security that gives practical meaning to having a common position, to wanting to play a central role. The Asean political-security pillar is not sufficiently envisaged even on paper, let alone constructed in practice.

Asean needs the kind of leadership as shown by its founding fathers to deal with the new regional geopolitical challenges, especially potential conflicts and their resolution. It cannot rest on the laurels of undoubted success in economic cooperation, and its greater future prospect through the Asean Economic Community, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or even the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

With threat to the peace, all this will be “value-at-risk.”

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