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News analysis

Beijing trying to show split in Asean over South China Sea

The consensus on the South China Sea issue that China reached with three Asean states is aimed at showing regional support for Beijing's rejection of an impending international court ruling on disputes in these waters, say Chinese analysts.

They add that China also wants to use the four-point consensus, revealed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi last Saturday at the end of his swing through Brunei, Laos and Cambodia, to show the lack of unanimity within the regional bloc over the Philippines' move in taking the disputes to an international tribunal.

"China is trying to show there is disagreement within Asean over the Philippines' move and also that Manila is not acting in accordance with Asean's agreed pact with China," said Sino-Asean relations expert Xu Liping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

 

He pointed out that the consensus stated that territorial and maritime disputes should be resolved through consultations and negotiations between claimant-states under Article 4 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed between Asean and China in 2002.

Another China-Asean expert, Dr Sun Xiaoying of the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences, said the consensus is also aimed at countering potential criticisms that China, in rejecting the ruling, is not abiding by international laws.


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) with newly elected Laos President Bounnhang Vorachit in Vientiane, Laos, on April 23, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

MORE THAN ONE VOICE

Asean members are not united on many issues, including the South China Sea. What China is doing is simply showing there is more than one voice on this issue, coming even from Brunei, a claimant-state.

NANJING UNIVERSITY ANALYST ZHU FENG, who believes China is pleased that Brunei is party to the consensus, and dismisses criticism of China sowing disunity among Asean states.

"The goal is to lay out the arguments coherently and show itself as a country willing to reason amicably with others over complicated issues," she told The Straits Times.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to give a ruling in late May or early June that could challenge the legality of China's sovereignty claims to almost the entire South China Sea.

China has refused to take part in the proceedings and said it would not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines.

The consensus is the latest effort by China's diplomatic machinery in recent weeks to sway international opinion over the ruling.

A communique after a meeting between the foreign ministers of China, India and Russia last week stated that all related disputes in the South China Sea should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned.

Analysts say it is unclear whether China deliberately picked the three countries to back its case, or whether it had approached more but was rejected.

Nonetheless, the analysts believe the consensus will have some impact in minimising repercussions, though Brunei is arguably the least vocal claimant-state, compared with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, while Cambodia and Laos' backing of China is not a surprise as they are regarded as Chinese allies.

Nanjing University analyst Zhu Feng believes China is pleased that Brunei is party to the consensus.

He also dismissed criticism that China is sowing disunity among Asean states.

"Asean members are not united on many issues, including the South China Sea. What China is doing is simply showing there is more than one voice on this issue, coming even from Brunei, a claimant-state," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing acting ahead of ruling on S. China Sea disputes: Analysts'. Print Edition | Subscribe