Cooperation and calculation: Two factors that determine the success of strategic alliances suddenly came to the fore in Asia last week when China and seven members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations held their largest-ever joint maritime rescue exercise.
The drill last Tuesday signalled a lull in South China Sea tensions. It simulated a collision between a Chinese passenger ship and a Cambodian cargo vessel off China’s Guangdong province and involved about 1,000 rescuers aboard 20 ships and three helicopters. The exercise followed meetings between the Chinese and Singaporean defence ministers on the sidelines of the 11th Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting in the Philippines.
What is interesting here is that China, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei took part, while Vietnam was notably absent. Disputes in East Asia’s seas have in the past spilled over into confrontations as vessels from competing countries spar over fishing grounds and resource extraction. Lately, though, some Asean member-countries have eased their opposition to China’s claims. But not Vietnam, which is sticking to its original path of veering away or balancing against China.
With Donald Trump set to visit the Philippines on Sunday, China appears to be manoeuvring to soften its reputation as an enemy of Asean members in the contested maritime arena.
On the other hand, Hanoi has continued to deliver sharp rebukes to Beijing. In June, a meeting between Vietnamese and Chinese generals over border issues was abruptly canceled, with both sides citing a sudden scheduling conflict.
The issue remains a flashpoint. China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea in the face of rival claims in Southeast Asian, including from four Asean members. It has rapidly reclaimed reefs, creating artificial islands capable of hosting military planes. Rival claimants should be alert to the fact that China’s diplomacy could be smuggling a wolf in sheep’s clothing into the upcoming Asean and Apec summits of world leaders.
However, in a more promising development, the Philippines has agreed not to build on Pagasa Island in the contested Scarborough Shoal, and can expect China to reciprocate. And then came another welcome sign of cooperation with last week’s drill. Observers are now watching carefully to see whether real progress has been made in the South China Sea stand-off.
Jumel G Estrañero