Time for Asean to wade in

opinion May 20, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The maritime dispute between member-state Vietnam and China has turned deadly; the regional grouping must intervene

The statement on South China Sea territory disputes issued by Asean foreign ministers in Nay Pyi Taw 10 days wasn’t enough. The maritime conflict has now reached shore and is spreading from country to country, people to people.
China evacuated more than 3,000 of its nationals from Vietnam last week after mobs torched Chinese-owned factories and shops, furious that a Chinese oil rig has been parked off the coast of Vietnam. Taiwanese nationals, despite having no connection to the rig, are also preparing to leave after Taiwanese-owned factories were attacked for employing Chinese workers.
The violence flared last Tuesday as Vietnamese nationalists in the south took to the streets to protest Beijing’s deployment of a giant drilling platform in waters near the disputed Paracel Islands.
Two Chinese nationals were killed and more than 100 injured in the riots that followed. The situation on the streets has since calmed, but tension will remain high while Hanoi and Beijing remain unable to agree on measures to settle their conflict peacefully.
The first step is for both governments to accept responsibility for provocative actions over the past weeks.
On May 1 Beijing deployed the $1-billion rig and protective fleet in waters that Vietnam has long claimed as part of its exclusive economic zone. Hanoi angrily demanded that the rig be removed and sent ships to confront it, which were battered by Chinese water cannon and rammed.
Alarmed members of the international community urged both sides to exercise restraint and seek a peaceful solution.
Asean, during its 24th summit in Myanmar, issued a statement of “serious concern” over the tense situation, but the region’s foreign ministers used the softest words possible. They urged “all parties to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which could undermine peace and stability in the area; and to resolve disputes by peaceful means without resorting to threat or use of force”.
In time-honoured Asean fashion, the bland, non-partisan plea was delivered, and regional leaders sat back in the hope that time would take care of the rest.
That hope was quickly dashed with the outbreak of violence involving ordinary citizens. 
Thailand is perhaps too busy with its domestic crisis to play its traditional role of coordinator between Asean and China, but that is not an excuse for Asean to stand idly amid simmering tensions.
No country – not even Vietnam as a member-state – is obliged to listen to what Asean has to say unless the grouping can prove its relevance by taking a constructive role in fixing regional problems. Asean can only do that by acting to address the right issues at the right time. And now is the right time for Asean to move to get China and Vietnam together at the negotiating table so they can tackle their dispute in a peaceful manner.

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