ASEAN seeks consensus, easing of tensions with China over South China Sea dispute
The 10-member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] produced a Code of Conduct outline in hopes of defusing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But the outline appears to fall short of what the Philippines and Vietnam, the two ASEAN members involved in controversies with China over ownership and control of small islands and reefs in the region, had hoped to see.
Defense ministers from the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Thailand met May 28 to 30 for their sixth ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting [ADMM] in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
China Defense Minister Liang Guanglie also paid a four-day visit [May 27 to 30] and signed a new $20 million military aid package for Cambodia with Defense Minister Tea Banh. On May 29, Liang held a short consultative meeting with the ASEAN defense ministers “to explain China’s stance on the South China Sea issue,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
“China will never slough off its responsibility to ensure regional peace and stability, never change its choice of pursuing peace and development, never slacken its efforts to promote regional cooperation, never give up its sincere pursuit of peaceful resolutions to disputes and never waver from its determination to guard its national sovereignty," Liang told his counterparts from ASEAN countries.
ASEAN officials also met in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to finish their work on assembling what a Cambodian senior official described to Xinhua as “drafting the core elements for making the Code of Conduct [COC] in the South China Sea,” as Xinhua described it.
China seeks good relations
Beijing signaled it wants to maintain its good relations with the ASEAN nations, which together have a total population of more than 500 million people. But at the same time, Beijing made clear that it was determined to continue to assert what it regards as its traditional rights to the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Beijing also reiterated its demand of the previous two months that Philippine ships evacuate the waters around Huangyan Island, which the Philippines call the Scarborough Reef.
“China’s stance on guarding its territorial sovereignty is unwavering,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin announced at a daily news conference in the Chinese capital, the China Daily reported.
The new Code of Conduct is to be presented to the assembled ASEAN foreign ministers in July. Officials expect it to be adopted.
Tensions rose significantly in April, inflaming nationalist sentiments in both the Philippines and China, after the Philippines maritime forces expelled Chinese fishing boats and crews operating in the region of the disputed Huangyan Island/Scarborough Reefs region.
Soeung Rathchavy, the secretary of state at Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry and a veteran deputy secretary general of ASEAN, chaired the organization’s meeting and afterward described the conclusion of work on the proposed Code of Conduct as a positive result.
“We, ASEAN senior officials, stressed our joint commitment to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties [DOC] in the South China Sea,” she told a press briefing, according to the Xinhua report.
Outcome may disappoint the Philippines, Vietnam
However, some analysts have described the outcome of the ADMM and the Code of Conduct outlines as a disappointment. “It’s clear that the member states which feel most insecure about China -- the Philippines and Vietnam -- had hoped for at least some ASEAN solidarity in managing their territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. They didn’t get it,” Trefor Moss wrote in The Diplomat on May 30.
Moss argued that the ASEAN consensus was a direct continuation of the cautious approach to the dispute that the organization adopted a year ago.
“Philippine proposals in 2011 for the creation of an ASEAN-China ‘Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation’ in the South China Sea were hung out to dry by the other ASEAN countries with only the Vietnamese expressing real support. Most instead backed a bilateral approach to arguments with China: in other words, they said they’d rather not get involved,” he wrote.
However, Cambodia Secretary of State Soeung Rathchavy told reporters the COC would prove to be important for boosting the forces of peace and stability in the South China Sea region and for accelerating the growth of friendship and cooperation between the ASEAN member states and China.
Although Vietnam and the Philippines are locking horns with China over control of rich oil- and gas-producing regions in the South China Sea, two other ASEAN-member nations, Brunei on the island of Borneo, and Malaysia, have territorial claims in the area, said Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
During the past decade, ASEAN’s guiding document on current and potential disputes in the South China Sea region has been the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was adopted in 2002 at a meeting between the foreign ministers of ASEAN and China.
However, in July 2011, the ASEAN foreign ministers recognized the need to replace the 2002 declaration with a more relevant policy. They issued new guidelines to prepare what has evolved into the outlines for the new Code of Conduct.
ASEAN nations maintain relationship with U.S.
Of ASEAN’s other member states, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are long-time close allies of the United States. Singapore enjoys close relations with both the United States and China. Laos and Burma are traditionally close to China. And Brunei and Malaysia enjoy good though not intimate relations with the United States and China. Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s relationships with the United States have broadened in the last few years.
The Phnom Penh meeting followed three days of talks in the Philippine capital Manila from May 20 to 22 between the United States and the ASEAN nations involving senior officials from all the participating nations. The talks covered strengthening security ties, climate change and trade and investment. The American and ASEAN delegations also sought to “review key elements of the US-ASEAN partnership,” the U.S. embassy in Manila announced in a statement.
The Manila gathering also was a preparatory meeting for a scheduled summit between U.S. and ASEAN leaders to be held in November.
Writing in the influential New Straits Times of Singapore on May 30, Chandra Muzaffar, chairman of the board of trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia, advocated establishing “an ASEAN-China Forum, which will serve as a platform for continuous discussions and negotiations on the Reef/Huangyan dispute and other related conflicts pertaining to the South China Sea.”
“Since four ASEAN states are involved, it makes sense for the regional entity to approach the various disputes over sovereignty vis-à-vis China on a collective basis,” Muzaffar wrote. “China and ASEAN whose economic ties have deepened and broadened as never before in the last decade, should now elevate their relationship through a forum which will address that one most contentious issue that could tear them asunder.”