After the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last month, the leaders of the member states were relieved, left with some hope that China would soon enter into negotiations on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
After all, the ASEAN+1 meeting with China went smoothly, with both sides showing restraint. Outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged ASEAN to discuss the conflict within the existing ASEAN-China framework and not to internationalize the issue. He emphasized that the code of conduct (COC) was a "natural progression" from the guideline document involving the concerned parties in the South China Sea issued in 2002. That was a political document declaring the intention and commitment of all parties: China and ASEAN. In return, the grouping stressed the need to have the COC as soon as possible as a tool to manage the dispute and govern the behavior of claimants in the future.
In addition, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen contributed a display of brinkmanship with a last minute compromise over a controversial sentence pinpointing that ASEAN would not internationalize the South China Sea conflict.
Several ASEAN leaders, including those of claimants and non-claimants, were unhappy with the conclusion, which they said was not reflected in the discussion.
Instead of dismissing the statement over the disagreement, Hun Sen agreed with the amendment and released his final statement, capping five months of angst after the ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué at the end of their meeting over a similar disagreement earlier in the year.
Unfortunately, though, the same angst is now morphing into real concern among the ASEAN members about China's latest unilateral moves, including the use of a new passport depicting the disputed areas—including Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin and the South China Sea—as its territory.
Then, there is a plan beginning next month for the Hainan police to board and search ships entering disputed areas that China considers its territorial waters. Before that, in July, Beijing announced the formation of a new administrative unit in Sansha city on Yongxing Island, known as Woody Island, in the disputed Paracels Island chain.
In several media interviews over the past week, outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has sternly warned that the situation in the South China Sea could get out of hand. He likened the conflict to the Palestine problem, with the potential to cause further conflict and polarize the region and international community at large. "It would have a very disturbing effect on the wider region; it will be divisive and contentious with far-reaching ramifications," he said in a telephone interview in Bangkok.
Surin, whose five-year tenure ends this month, also reiterated that ASEAN must get its act together and stay united, otherwise it would be difficult to show solidarity and increase its bargaining power. ASEAN can no longer stay idle as major powers are using the grouping as a platform to express their security concerns. Surin pointed out that while ASEAN has contributed to the global recovery—maintaining trade, raising consumption and attracting foreign investment, drawing major economic powerhouses of the region together—it has not yet come together on key political and security issues. "ASEAN must be united and must speak with one voice," he reiterated. "Otherwise, no one will respect or take us seriously."
At a Pattaya meeting in October ahead of the ASEAN summit, senior officials from China and ASEAN held consultations without reaching common ground on key issues. The one-day meeting was supposed to serve as a precursor to kick off the COC negotiations this month.
According to officials attending the meeting, the chief of the Chinese delegation, Madame Fu Ying, was very tough on ASEAN's positions over the dispute. She took to task the grouping for allowing other parties to intervene in the ongoing discussion and negotiations over the dispute. Her main complaint was that the issue was now being discussed in all sorts of international platforms including the United Nations, the Non-aligned Movement and the Asia Europe Meeting.
At this particular juncture, China, she added, would not be able to commit to any specific date to begin the much-awaited COC negotiations, due to the leadership transition in China. The newly appointed leaders will take over next March, which means both sides have to work on the conditions conducive to the COC negotiations in the next four months.
In Pattaya, China listed six common misunderstandings, culled from ASEAN statements and numerous reports, pertaining to the COC negotiations, which ASEAN needs to address before the drafting can start.
First of all, the East Asia Summit will be peaceful if there is a COC; without it, it will be a stalemate. Secondly, the COC is aimed at regulating China's behavior alone. Thirdly, ASEAN will use the COC to consolidate its claims and push China to give up its sovereignty. Fourthly, the COC has been the work of outsiders, due to their constant calls on China and ASEAN to begin the drafting. Fifthly, the COC is a negotiation between China and the ASEAN 10 as stated in the grouping's Proposed Common Elements on the COC. Finally, the COC will not confine the South China Sea issue only to ASEAN and China.
With such perceptions imbedded deep in the Chinese mind, it is hard to foresee how ASEAN could overturn these allegations in the next few months. At present, from ASEAN's vantage point, what the group is witnessing is the reiteration of China's position and sovereignty claims over the disputed territories, a position it has held since the dispute was brought into the open in July 2010.
The more China continues to emphasize its control over the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea, the more concern it will generate in the region and international community, because ASEAN does not accept China's claimed sovereignty in the first place. Therefore, Beijing's reassurances over freedom and safety of navigation and ASEAN's questioning of such control run counter to each other—this is the gist of the ongoing conflict.
From the Chinese perspective, any doubts raised over freedom and safety issues are tantamount to non-acceptance of China's sovereignty over the whole South China Sea. It is unacceptable.
ASEAN-China differences derive from interpretations of cosmologies as conceived by China and ASEAN. If they remain unresolved, it would have a domino effect in widening the perception gaps between the two—China on one side and ASEAN on the other.
The most dangerous part is that China could find itself increasingly isolated in one corner as the ASEAN side is joined and backed by the US and the rest of the global community who continue to stress the rule of law and relevant international laws including the UN Law of the Sea.
Whenever China and its leaders feel they are humiliated, and being portrayed as victims in this conflict—similar to the often-cited past arguments concerning subjugation by the West—they will act to defend their country. As such, the newly elected leaders in Beijing would have little room to maneuver.
Furthermore, the rise of Chinese nationalism as perpetuated by social media networks, as well as the fragmentation of security-related decision-makers on the South China Sea, have limited the liberal policy options that China could initiate.
Both sides urgently need to seriously work out their differences to ensure that they are on the same page. Otherwise, the ongoing tit-for-tat in the past several months, heightened during the past week, could one day generate damning misunderstandings that could lead to a conflict that nobody wants.
Indeed, ASEAN and China cannot afford to come to that kind of apocalyptic end-game, as it would be a lose-lose scenario.
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