Four Asean members contest China’s claims to various islets and maritime features, with Vietnam and the Philippines the most active and vocal compared to Malaysia and Brunei. While other members of the group officially remain neutral, some changes are perceptible.
Last year, then Asean chair Cambodia refused any mention of the issue at the summit meeting, triggering an unprecedented failure to issue an agreed statement at the summit’s conclusion. Some feared that Chinese pressure would undermine Asean unity. In contrast, Brunei, the current chair, has so far been successful in keeping the issue on the agenda, without appearing to take sides. Its leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has stepped up to personally visit Washington DC and Beijing, and then go to Manila. These special efforts – all in the space of six weeks – ensure attention at the highest level. It is to the chair’s credit that the last Asean summit in late April did not repeat the failure at Phnom Penh.
The Six-Point Principles in resolving maritime issues were re-emphasised as a basis to jumpstart negotiations on a binding Code of Conduct. Nothing especially new, but enough to put the process back on track and shift the onus to Beijing.
Enter the new Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi. During his visit to the region, critics pointed out that he skirted the claimants, except for Brunei. Yet this was to be expected on a first trip for the new minister, who has a deserved reputation for diplomatic skill and smooth approach. Tensions have, after all, risen in recent months, with the Philippines notably active.
Manila has put up a legal challenge for international arbitration over its maritime claims. This is proceeding, despite China’s refusal to participate. Beijing has instead responded outside the court, with more visits to the disputed areas by its fishing and other vessels. After the recent incident at sea that involved the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman, criticism of the Philippines has been widespread in both China and Taiwan.
The countries chosen for Foreign Minister Wang’s visit were deliberate choices for China. Indonesia and Singapore are non-claimants in the South China Sea but have been notably active in trying to propose solutions after the failure in Cambodia. Brunei has claims that overlap with China’s but the chair of the group has been self-restrained on the issue.
It remains to be seen how engaged Thailand will be while serving as the designated coordinator for Asean dialogue with China. Indicative perhaps is that when Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the media coverage focused on whether Beijing would require the return of a baby panda born in Chiang Mai.
These four countries can serve as the core of Asean opinion on the issue. To do so, they must aim to ensure the group’s unity while responding actively but neutrally. Asean must help strike a balance that allows the claimant states to buy in, while maintaining China’s trust. Further progress on the issue is possible, although by no means guaranteed.
A critical step that Asean leaders urged is for officials to start work on the promised Code of Conduct. Official negotiations must be undertaken at a sufficient level and pace. Only where there are issues that are more technical or too sensitive at present, should Asean and China appoint eminent persons to study and advise. Joint development – which China has called for – should also be considered, provided that suitable areas can be identified and agreed upon.
For its part, Beijing must not abuse the process and string out discussions indefinitely. If positive steps are not forthcoming and incidents at sea escalate, diplomatic efforts will be seen as empty promises and erode goodwill with Asean.
A reality check will come at the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), which will bring together foreign ministers from across the Asia-Pacific region. Discussion of the South China Sea with ARF members beyond Asean is inevitable. Remember that it was at the ARF almost three years ago that then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton intervened on this issue, to China’s chagrin.
Whether Asean and China can keep and handle the issues amongst themselves will test and reveal the temperament not only of Beijing’s leaders but also those of Asean members. The US and others with a stake in managing peace and stability across the wider region will judge the situation accordingly.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and associate professor teaching international law at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of “Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America.”