Festering South China Sea row will hurt Beijing's image
A code of conduct with Asean will go a long way towards lowering tensions in the region
The longer Asean and China wait for the conclusion of the code of conduct for the South China Sea, the greater the danger for both sides in the coming months. The warning came from the outgoing Asean chief, Surin Pitsuwan, who has repeatedly warned all parties involved in the disputed maritime area to get their act together. "We must send the right signal to the outside world, which is understandably concerned and nervous whether we can manage our differences effectively," Surin said last week. Somehow, Asean and China have not yet been able to do that.
Judging from the outcome of the Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Asean could not really reconcile among themselves, especially the Philippines and Asean chair Cambodia. President Benigno Aquino was very succinct in expressing his country's position that the South China Sea dispute was an international issue and the Asean forum is just one of the ways to address the conflict. Obviously what the Philippines had in mind is not necessarily shared by other Asean members. Vietnam might share the Philippine opinion but the former has been more discreet. Other claimants such as Malaysia and Brunei have a different attitude altogether. Both prefer quiet diplomacy. Non-claimants have asked for a unity of positions among all the members.
However, one thing was clear from the Phnom Penh summit - the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea is an international issue that any country, including Asean, can raise. However, issues related to the overlapping claims over the disputed islands and shoals must be dealt with by the conflicting parties. The US has also made this principle clear and reiterated its neutral position by not siding with any side. Washington has been quite supportive of Asean through this justification.
At this point, China has not yet agreed to hold negotiations with Asean on the code of conduct. Thailand, as the coordinating country on Asean-China ties, is working behind the scenes to convince both sides to enter into negotiations as soon as possible. But China has insisted that until the new leadership takes over in China in March, nothing can be done. During the transitional period, Asean believes that China would remain very tough on its position on the South China Sea. The recently released map of China in the electronic Chinese passport shows that Beijing is not softening its position. The passport would increase the tension between China and the two claimants - Vietnam and the Philippines. Both countries have said they will not stamp their visas on the new passport.
Looking ahead, Asean-China relations could undergo another severe test. It is possible that when the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, takes over in March, China's position could be different. The ongoing stalemate is not good for the middle kingdom's diplomacy. After all, good relations with Asean can serve as the bedrock of China's foreign relations to demonstrate that Beijing can peacefully coexist with its smaller neighbours. Any rupture in the pivotal ties would have adverse effects on China's reputation and standing in the world.