Territory disputes between member countries and China are threatening to explode
Thailand is too busy with domestic affairs to play mediator between Asean and Beijing in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have escalated recently with clashes between China and Vietnam. But Myanmar, currently chairing Asean, has no excuse to sit still.
Beijing and Hanoi repeatedly insist they want to solve their dispute by peaceful means, but neither has backed down from provocative moves at sea and so far they’ve shown no readiness to talk.
The international community has voiced grave concern over the situation in the trouble waters, but the lack of any decisive action between the disputants has been matched by foreign passivity.
Conflict in the South China Sea has a long history. The current wave of disputes dates back more than half a century, to when regional giant China claimed sovereignty over about 100 islets and reefs, many of which are also claimed by Asean member-countries, notably Vietnam and the Philippines. Southeast Asia has been suffering with the problem ever since.
Shortly before the Asean summit in Nay Pyi Taw last month, China moved an oil rig and accompanying vessels into an area near the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam as part of its exclusive economic zone. Vietnam sent in boats, and clashes between the two flotillas occurred, prompting Asean and others in the international community to voice concern.
The latest development came last week when China moved the rig – but to another location that Hanoi says is still within its territory. A collision close to the rig resulted in the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat. The Vietnamese said a Chinese boat rammed it; the Chinese said it had “been capsized” for intruding into a “precautionary area” around the rig.
A week earlier the planting of the rig sparked anti-China violence in central and southern Vietnam that claimed the lives of several Chinese nationals and damaged Chinese-owned factories and shops. Businesses linked to Thais and Taiwanese were mistakenly targeted in the same melee.
Late last week Vietnam sent a diplomatic note to the United Nations, giving its account of the dispute and asking member-countries to criticise Beijing’s for its “wrongful” actions. China responded by blaming Vietnam for being provocative.
Leaders in Beijing and Hanoi have managed to establish a channel of communications over their dispute, but it is yet to yield any positive development. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has said his government is now preparing a legal challenge against China’s territorial claim.
Legal action through a judicial branch of the United Nations is indeed one option. The Philippines has already taken that path in its own clash with China over maritime territory. However, seeking a solution through the international courts will take time, and anything could happen along the way. This is where Asean could step into the fray, by bringing all parties together to seek common ground. Such a move might not end the disputes, but it would discourage unilateral action that could foment more violence.
Of course, Asean can’t really be considered an “honest broker” in mediating disputes between its own members and a foreign power. In an ideal world, it would not have to do so. But it is obliged to exercise its abilities in the framework of Asean-China cooperation, which demands that all parties refrain from provocative action and maintain the status quo until a solution can be found. If Asean wants to prove its relevance in regional security, it should grab this golden opportunity.