Observers say territorial disputes in the South China Sea will likely be a main focus at an upcoming meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But they expect progress to be slow on a long-delayed code of conduct between the regional bloc and China.
Disagreements over the maritime disputes, which pit China against several of its southeast Asian neighbors, prevented ASEAN from publishing a joint statement after a July summit in Cambodia for the first time in its history. The impasse was widely attributed to pressure from Beijing.
ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said last week "good signs" were emerging from ongoing talks between China and the regional bloc on how to draft a code of conduct to resolve the issue. Although he expects nothing will be finalized before the November 15 ASEAN and East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, he said he looks forward to what he called a "candid" discussion on the South China Sea at the meeting.
Ernie Bower, senior adviser and chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agrees there is little chance a code of conduct will be signed at the November conference. But he said he expects China to take a less aggressive approach during the summit.
"I don't think they'll push Cambodia as hard," Bower said. "I think the Chinese have realized that their very aggressive approach to ASEAN, trying to manipulate Cambodia, to pull issues like the South China Sea out of the discussion is not going to be useful."
Many ASEAN members blame Cambodia, currently the bloc's chair, for giving in to Chinese pressure in July by rejecting a proposal to mention territorial disputes with Beijing in the proposed group statement.
Bower said all sides must realize that if ASEAN cannot discuss, or even mention, the most important regional security issues of the day, it will not have very much value as a regional body.
"The concept that we can't talk about, or we don't put on the record a discussion of the South China Sea -- that thinking is really outdated," said Bower. "This sort of [mindset] -- hide the important issue, don't talk about it -- that's not the way governance works in the modern world, and that's not the way the China-ASEAN relationship would prosper."
Carl Thayer, a specialist on Southeast Asian affairs at the University of New South Wales, said that Cambodia is more likely to be compelled to discuss South China Sea security because of the heavyweights attending the summit.
"I don't think that Cambodia's [Prime Minister] Hun Sen could stand up to a [President] Barack Obama or a Japanese prime minister if they insisted on discussing the South China Sea," said Thayer. "Earlier this year, I think the ASEAN foreign ministers were very respectful of the position of chair, they intervened in private, but let the matter go publicly. I don't think that would happen at the East Asia Summit."
But Thayer addded the United States and its regional allies will likely be cautious in confronting China over the issue.
"They do not want to raise the issue by putting China in the dock," he said. "They're really trying to encourage a process where force and intimidation isn't used, where the players get back on the same international law music sheet and try to apply that law to the dispute."
Thayer said it may be politically advantageous for China to make some progress on the maritime disputes in the near future. But he warned not much may be known about China's willingness to resolve the issue until the completion of a months-long leadership transition that begins this week in Beijing.
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