The Asian Voice

Asean, China search for new model to work together: The Nation

This file handout photo taken on April 2, 2015 by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank shows a satellite image of what is claimed to
This file handout photo taken on April 2, 2015 by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank shows a satellite image of what is claimed to be an under-construction airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. PHOTO: DIGITALGLOBE

Both are looking for a new paradigm that would strengthen their cooperation and resolve outstanding conflicts without outside interference. Can they do it?

By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation/Asia News Network 

For weeks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has painstakingly explained his country's position on the South China Sea dispute and recent progress in drafting a code of conduct for the area with Asean.

But the region was not paying attention as it was totally focused on the controversies over land reclamation in the disputed islands among the conflicting parties and the grouping's collective response.

In the Chinese media, Wang Yi's remarks made before and during the Asean Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur was the subject of extensive reports.

Before he left Beijing, he also met with envoys from the ten Asean members reiterating China's new initiatives to bolster the Asean-China cooperation to welcome the arrival of the Asean Community and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their dialogue relations in 2016.

He emphasised that Asean was the priority in China's peripheral diplomacy and Beijing would continue to support Asean, the first sub-regional community and its predominant role in East Asia.

At the meeting, he also outlined three new challenges that zeroed in on expanding production capacity cooperation, boosting connectivity as well as deepening maritime cooperation with Asean.

In Singapore on August 3, Wang Yi reiterated China's positions on the sea disputes emphasising various commitments to ensure peaceful settlement by "rules and mechanism".

The most important message, however, was China's first-ever mention of the freedom of overflight in the South China Sea - the longstanding concern of Asean following China's declaration of an air defence identification zone in November, 2013.

During the post ministerial meeting on August 6, Wang Yi again reiterated China's must-do list for the grouping under the leadership of President Xi Jinping with another 10-point proposal.

Some elements were not new but they were aimed at reassuring Asean of Beijing's intention and future actions, especially in the South China Sea.

Both sides agreed that the process had entered a new phase with plans to formulate the second list of commonalities, the establishment of an Eminent Persons and Experts Group, the hotlines for search and rescue and emergencies preventive measures.

Half of Wang Yi's proposed actions were oriented towards trust and confidence building, coupled with efforts to strengthen defence and security cooperation between the two sides, particularly under the current Asean Defence Ministerial Plus with China.

In another important move in this direction, Beijing has already renewed its intention to sign the protocol of the 1995 Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) as soon as possible. China was the first country to accede to the Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2003.

Two years later, it also expressed an intention to be the first nuclear power to sign up to SEANWFZ. But Asean was lukewarm towards Beijing's enthusiasm due to the uncertainties surrounding the South China Sea conflict.

Now, Indonesia under President Joko Widodo has picked up the issue once again by offering to facilitate China's accession to the SEANWFZ.

From Jakarta's point of view, this would be an immediate step to reducing the trust deficits with China.

At the Asean annual meeting, Indonesia presented a non-paper to materialise Beijing's plan.

It is still unclear whether China has dropped its earlier conditions over its sovereignty. The no-nuke treaty would impact greatly on China due to its close proximity to the zone and the importance of sea-lane communications to its economic lifelines.

Beijing has voiced concern that its exclusive economic zones and continental shelves might be affected. In addition, Indonesia also proposed the establishment of hotlines at the top level between the governments of Asean and China to address emergencies and reduce tension whenever necessary in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, Wang Yi's latest overture expressed willingness to work with Asean over Beijing's collective security framework, known as the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation.

China has already suggested the setting up of a working group to discuss this proposal but Asean is still recalcitrant. Instead, the Asean foreign ministers have tasked Indonesia to put together all security proposals submitted by Russia, India, Indonesia as well as China into one document, which would be part of the ongoing discussion on regional security architecture.

At this juncture, Asean wants to concentrate on the code of conduct process while China wants to work in parallel on both the code of conduct and the proposed treaty with Asean.

The latest move would further increase constraint over the formulation of the next action plans for the 2016-2020 period, which must be completed before the next Asean-China Summit in November.

During the first 15-years of Asean-China relations, the grouping gave special preferences to China due to its strong support of the grouping's positions - theAsean centrality - in all Asean-led forums.

That helped explain the reason the bilateral relations have 44 committees at various levels, the most extensive among all Asean dialogue partners.

The Asean perception of China is quite different following the growing tension in the South China Sea that began in 2010.

It is possible that in the absence of Asean consensus over various proposals from China pending the code of conduct process, individual members might be tempted to take their own initiatives, particularly over the proposed treaty.

In February 1999, during the peak of Asean-China relations, Thailand was the first Asean member to sign the 21st Century Cooperation Framework with China on a bilateral basis, which subsequently led to signatories with all Asean members.

Now, Asean-China relations have reached a crossroads as the previous high level of amity and trust is not strongly present. In the current international strategic landscape, the mutual respect and patience demonstrated over the first half of their over two-decade relations is increasingly to be found wanting.

Both sides face the same dilemma coming from domestic and external pressures in the age of rising nationalism and digital connectivity to produce concrete results.

More than Asean-China leaders would like to admit, they are looking for a new paradigm that would allow them to strengthen their cooperation and resolve outstanding conflicts without outside interference.

But the most frequently asked question remains whether they could do it.