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‘Weathermakers’ can control South China Sea political storms

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In Brief

The South China Sea experiences two monsoon periods each year: from May to September and November to March.

That means a storm is guaranteed at just about any time. But although the southwest monsoon raged on as usual as ASEAN conducted its 46th Ministerial Meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, inside the meeting halls the atmosphere remained calm. 

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ASEAN took a step toward resolving its disputes in the South China Sea.

The success of the meeting made it a contrast with last year’s summit in Phnom Penh, where foreign ministers were unable to agree on a joint communiqué for the first time in ASEAN history. As chair, Brunei deserves high praise for its astute and effective handling of the meeting, which secured an agreement between ASEAN and China to commence official consultations on the formulation of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

This is a welcome change. Not long ago China was adamant that ‘the time is not ripe’ for talks on a code. ASEAN and China had apparently lost trust in one another after the Phnom Penh meeting created a fault line between ASEAN and China. The 2013 Brunei meeting, in contrast, will be remembered as an example of ASEAN–China goodwill.

ASEAN succeeded in persuading China to begin talks on a code of conduct, in part by accepting China’s suggestion of an ‘Eminent Persons and Experts Group’ to help guide the negotiations. This compromise reversed a worrisome inclination toward brinkmanship and brings the ASEAN–China relationship back on an even keel. Both ASEAN and China can claim Bandar Seri Begawan as a political victory, but the biggest winner is Asia as a region. When concluded and signed, the Code of Conduct will provide a framework to manage the contending interests in the South China Sea. It will minimise the risk of strategic miscalculation and escalation.

But it is too early to celebrate just yet. Getting ASEAN and China to the negotiating table is only the first step. If the Code of Conduct is to help maintain peace in the South China Sea, the talks must be concluded quickly. Undue delay could lead to frustration among the claimants, who may well take matters into their own hands to strengthen their respective positions, and in doing so ratchet up the tension again. For the Code of Conduct negotiations to conclude quickly ASEAN must convince the Philippines to fully commit to the negotiating process. Through formal or informal channels, ASEAN must win over the Philippines. After all, the best way for Manila and ASEAN to prevent armed conflict is to conclude a Code of Conduct with China.

It would be counterproductive for the Philippines to adopt a hedging strategy by availing itself of the benefits of the Code of Conduct process while cosying up to the United States and Japan for military support. The Philippines’ engagement of US P3C Orion planes for surveillance will only make China suspicious that ASEAN is in cahoots with the United States.

Manila’s attempts to cultivate US and Japanese political and military support only weakens ASEAN’s longstanding efforts to manage the South China Sea through diplomacy and undermines China’s commitment to the Code of Conduct. Still it may be unfair to single out the Philippines: ASEAN must hold China and itself to the same exacting standards.

The claimants should take great care not to cause offence lest negotiations derail. All parties must curtail military exercises and patrols, which are generally seen as provocative actions by all parties. In fact, the first order of business when the official consultation on the Code of Conduct commences in September 2013 should be to establish a modus vivendi to insulate and protect the process from strategic missteps and nationalistic outbreaks.

It took 11 years after the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea was inked for ASEAN and China to move forward on negotiations. As they negotiate, all parties should keep in mind their ultimate goal: regional peace and stability. Meanwhile, nationalist instincts should be kept in check. Nationalism will only weaken the cooperative spirit that now exists between ASEAN and China.

While sailors and fishermen can’t do much about changing weather patterns, national leaders can be the masters of political storms. Whether they can control the South China Sea depends on the success of negotiations for a Code of Conduct. The failure of the process, in contrast, could imperil regional security.
Tang Siew Mun is Director of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia.

This article was first published here, in the New Straits Times.

2 responses to “‘Weathermakers’ can control South China Sea political storms”

  1. 1. The author’s goal is to set up an advance excuse for Chinese to delay COC signing and blame some other nation for that failure. This is a normal Chinese behaviour. A clear indication of this intent is the author’s emphasis on calling the previously agreed “COC negotiation” by its Chinese backtracked name “COC consultations” and Chinese suggested need for “an Eminent Persons and Experts Group” to assist. After 11 years of “the situation not ripe” and countless Chinese violations oaf the 2002 DOC, Asean should not allow China any opportunity to drag its feet for another 11 years.
    2. This article attempts to lend credibility and further intimidates Asean with threat from Chinese FM Wang about “certain trouble-makers” among its members. The author helped Wang to name the Philippines as that nation who dares to raise its voice against the “big” China. Since when that a sovereign member of Asean not allowed to align itself freely with others to defend against territorial aggressions? And why does the pursuit of UN arbitration conflict with peaceful resolution process championed by Asean?
    3. The author concluded his writing by lecturing Asean (code word all parties) to curtail military exercises and patrols… knowing that only China has been the party using such means to bully other claimants and Chinese illegal use of forces is the very reason for this China/Asean COC discussion.
    The upcoming COC negotiation is a critical opportunity for Asean to unite in managing the reckless and dangerous Chinese military escalations in the South China Sea. However, permanent solution against Chinese unchangeable expansionism requires Asean to perform long-term institutional restructure into a majority ruled defensive forces while encouraging members to seek out willing inside/outside partners to coordinate effective short-term countermeasures. Asean will gain respect and secure durable peace when it can show China a higher cost to their relentless aggression.

    • Contrary to the reader’s suggestion that the article was an attempt to “assist” China to set up an “advance excuse” to delay talks on the COC,the article was intended NOT to give China any excuses to do so. We know that Beijing has been reluctant to commence talks on the COC and notwithstanding the Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) agreement to do so, there is still a degree of hesitation to do so. Yes, Beijing may well be looking for excuses to back down from the COC talks. The question for ASEAN is, should we give China an excuse to do just that? ASEAN’s strategy is to keep China on track on the COC talks.

      I apologize if I had given the Forum wrong impression with perhaps a less than perfect choice of words between “negotiation” and “consultation.” It should be clear from the article that the position taken is one that is unequivocally supportive of the COC. The EPEG idea was a Chinese proposal, and ASEAN has agreed in the BSB meeting to establish such a modality, if required to assist in the COC talks. The article does not argue in support for the EPEG per se, but if it helps to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table on the COC, this is a small “price” to pay. At the same time, ASEAN should be vigilant not to allow the EPEG to be used as a stratagem to stall on the COC.

      In all fairness, if we were to move forward constructively on the COC and the SCS disputes, we need to take an objective view of ourselves. China, although being the biggest and most visible transgressor, is not the only party that had acted contrary to the DOC. The suggestion to act with caution and restrain is directed to ASEAN as much as it is to China as stated in the article.

      Every state has the sovereign right to take any measures to protect its sovereignty. However, that state should also be willing to bear the consequences of its actions. The point on the complications of a hedging strategy highlights the possible contradiction between the ASEAN process and linking other major powers to the dispute. If turning to the major powers complicates the COC process, then the Philippines would have to decide if which one of the two options is best for Manila. No doubt the Philippines will take a course of action that will serve its national and strategic interests. What if these interests are inconsistent with ASEAN’s? If Manila exercises it sovereign right to pursue an independent course of action, it follows that its ASEAN should also explore the possibility of an “ASEAN -1” option. It is unthinkable – an undesirable – for ASEAN to go down this drastic road. ASEAN unity is paramount.

      The reader’s point on ASEAN’s institutional restructuring is spot-on. This may be the single most critical issue ASEAN will have to address – and hopefully sooner rather than later. Until we are at that point, the claimants (ASEAN and China) should give the COC a chance. As pointed in the article, “ASEAN must hold China and itself to the same exacting standards.” The failure to conclude the COC will be catastrophe for ASEAN and China. Among others, it may mean that ASEAN states will have to brace itself for heighten military tensions. States with strategic anxieties will turn to extra-regional assistance, which may in the long run, lead to a Cold War-like strategic divide. Of course, the future is far from clear, and we can only speculate and think through the many possible consequences and outcomes. What is clear today is that there is a chance for ASEAN and China to “reset” their strategic relations and establish a mechanism to take the meaningful first step toward resolving the SCS disputes. We have to give peace and the COC a chance. If China continues to stall or non-committal to the COC, then all bets are off and we should explore other means to protect our sovereignty and interest. In the meantime, we have to stay the course and to give the COC a chance.

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