Avoid breaking down Asean-China relations
After the 21st Asean Summit in Phnom Penh last month, the Asean leaders were relief hoping China would soon enter into negotiation on the binding code of conduct in South China Sea. After all, the Asean plus one meeting with China was smooth as both sides showed restraints. The outgoing Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged Asean to discuss the conflict within the existing Asean-China framework and should not internationalize the issue. He emphasized that the code of conduct (COC) was the "natural progression" of the guidelines document of concerning parties of the South China Sea began in 2002, which 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 behavior of claimants in the future.
In addition, thanked to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's display of brinksmanship with a last minute's compromise over the controversial sentence pinpointing that Asean would not internationalize the South China Sea conflict. Several Asean leaders including claimants and non-claimants were not happy with the conclusion, which they said were not reflected in the discussion. Instead of dismissal of the statement over the disagreement, Hun Sen agreed with the amendment and released his final statement, capping five-month of angst after the Asean foreign ministers failed to issue the joint communiqué at the end of their meeting over the similar disagreement.
Unfortunately, the same angst are now morphing into real concerns among the Asean members by China's latest unilateral moves including the use of new e-passport depicting the disputed areas including Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin and South China Sea. Then, there is a plan beginning next month for the Hainan police to board and search ships entering the territorial considered owned by China in the disputed areas. 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 chains.
In several media interviews over the past week, the outgoing Asean Secretary General, Dr Surin Pitsuwan, has sternly warned that the situation in South China Sea could get out of hands and likened the conflict to the Palestine problem, which had the potential to cause further conflict and polarize the region and international community at large. "It would have a very disturbing effect on a wider region, it will be divisive and contentious with far reaching ramifications," he reiterated to the author in a telephone interview yesterday in Bangkok."
At a Pattaya meeting in October ahead of the Asean summit, senior officials from China and Asean held consultations without reaching key common grounds. The one-day meeting was supposed to serve a precursor to kick off the COC negotiation this month. According to officials attending the meeting, the chief of 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 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, Non-aligned Movement and Asia Europe Meeting. At this particular juncture, China, she also added, would not be able to commit any specific date to begin the much awaited COC negotiations due to the leadership transition in China. The newly elected leaders would take over next March, which means both sides have to work on the conditions conducive for the COC negotiation in the next four months.
In Pattaya, China listed six common misunderstandings, culling from Asean statements and numerous reporting, 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 consistency in calling 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 between Asean and China.
With such perceptions imbedding deep in the Chinese mind, it is hard to foresee how Asean could overturn these allegations in the next few months. At present, from the Asean's vintage point, what the group is witnessing has been the reiteration of China's position and sovereignty claims over the disputed territories since the dispute was brought into the open in July 2010. The more China continues to emphasis over its control over the freedom and safety of navigation of South China Sea, the more concern it would generate to the region and international community because Asean does not accept China's claimed sovereignty in the first place. Therefore, Beijing's reassurance over the freedom and safety of navigation and the Asean's questioning of such control run countering to each other - the gist of the ongoing conflict. From the Chinese perspective, any doubt raised over the freedom and safety issues is tantamount to the non-acceptance of China's sovereignty over the whole South China Sea. It is unacceptable.
Asean-China differences are real deriving from interpretations of cosmologies as conceived by China and Asean. If they remain unresolve, 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 when China would find itself increasingly isolated at one corner as the Asean side is being joined and backed by the US and the rest of global community, which continue to stress on the rule of law and relevant international laws including the UN Laws of the Sea. Whenever China and its leaders feel that they are humilitated, and being portrayed as victims in this conflict - similar to the often cited past arguments concerned Western subjugations, they would act to defend their country. As such, the newly elected leaders in Beijing would have a small room to maneuver. Furthermore, the rise of Chinese nationalism as perpetuated by nation-side social media network as well as fragmentations of security-related decision makers on South China Sea have limited 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, heightening during the past week, could one day generate damning misunderstandings that can lead to conflict that nobody wants.
Indeed, Asean and China cannot afford to come to that kind of apocalyptic end-game as it is a lose-lose dash.