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The View From Asia

Asean's love-hate relationship with China

China's dealings with Asean countries were the focus of commentaries this week. Here are some excerpts on how Asean countries can deal, individually and collectively, with Beijing's appeal and might.

Fishing rights the crux of issue

Rizal Sukma
The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

The recent incident involving a Chinese coast guard vessel and Indonesia's Maritime and Fisheries Monitoring Task Force near Indonesia's Natuna Islands has once again highlighted the problem of illegal fishing in Indonesia-China relations.

In the past, both sides handled the issue quietly in the hope that the problem would go away.

The latest incident, however, clearly shows that such an approach can no longer work.

In fact, China's behaviour has become more assertive, forcing Indonesia to respond accordingly.

Therefore, it is imperative that Indonesia and China start finding solutions to the problem.

Chinese cargo ships on the Mekong River. Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered the five Asean countries along the Mekong River US$11.5 billion (S$15.5 billion) in loans and credit for infrastructure and other projects.
Chinese cargo ships on the Mekong River. Last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered the five Asean countries along the Mekong River US$11.5 billion (S$15.5 billion) in loans and credit for infrastructure and other projects. PHOTO: REUTERS

Any settlement should be based on two facts. First, Indonesia holds full sovereignty over the Natuna Islands and their territorial waters, and has an undisputable sovereign right over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the surrounding waters. Second, it is then clear that Indonesia is not a party to the South China Sea dispute. Nor does Indonesia take sides in the ongoing dispute between China and the four Asean claimants - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

The problem between Indonesia and China lies with fishing rights, not territorial disputes. Therefore, Indonesia and China need to treat and address the problem as such.

The two sides should not allow the problem to develop into a political, let alone territorial, feud.

This requires two important steps to be taken. First, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has affirmed Indonesia's position clearly: China should support Indonesia's attempt to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and should never violate Indonesia's sovereignty or infringe upon Indonesia's EEZ and continental shelf.

China's argument that its fishermen were conducting activities in areas it considers "traditional fishing grounds" is misleading. In fact, it could complicate the issue.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), to which both Indonesia and China are parties, does not recognise such a concept. The two countries should abide by the convention.

Second, Indonesia and China should start discussing a joint strategy on how to combat the IUU problem in the area and beyond.

Indonesia values its relationship with China as a comprehensive strategic partnership. So does China. It is inconceivable that the two nations cannot find an amicable solution to the problem.


Fair deal needed for rail project

Suthichai Yoon
The Nation, Thailand  

Has the Thai-Chinese high-speed train project been derailed? Officially, it is still on, albeit on a reduced scale. Unofficially, the scheme has been suspended until further notice.

Thailand's decision to go it alone in building a section of the original Thai-Chinese railway project between Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) will have far-reaching consequences for overall relations between the two countries.

Thailand could now become the "missing link" in Beijing's ambitious plan to build a rail network linking southern China with the rest of Asia.

That does not augur well for Beijing's much-heralded 21st-century Silk Road initiative.

Last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha returned from a summit of Chinese and Lower Mekong countries in Hainan, and separate bilateral talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, to deliver an unexpected twist on the rail project: Thailand will build the 250km Bangkok-Korat section on its own budget and with Chinese technology.

The original plan was for an 845km route from Bangkok to the north-east border province of Nong Khai and from Kaeng Khoi in Saraburi to Map Ta Phut in the eastern seaboard province of Rayong.The inevitable question is, therefore, what was the economic rationale behind this change of plan?

A partial answer was offered by Transport Minister Arkhom Tempittayapaisith when he said construction of the rail project's remaining 595km has been suspended, pending further consideration.

The Thai government will come under pressure to ensure that the deal eventually offers concrete benefits to Thailand's economy, and that the country's "economic sovereignty" is not compromised by Chinese conditions .

Bangkok had proposed that Beijing demonstrate its willingness to share the burden and risk of the project by taking a significant ratio in a joint venture, rather than merely offering a loan and demanding that its construction firms and technology be used.

Beijing turned that down.

The transport minister also indicated that Beijing suggested its active investment was conditional on China being handed the rights to make economic use of the land corridor around the railway track.

Thailand rejected that demand too.Without an agreement that is mutually beneficial, fair, equal and transparent for both sides, the now- dim light at the end of the tunnel might turn out to be an oncoming train, hurtling towards a stationary carriage and an accident far more serious than any routine derailment.


Asean must stand for beliefs

Munir Majid
The Star, Malaysia

At the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders' Meeting in Hainan last Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang offered the five Asean countries along the Mekong river US$11.5 billion (S$15.5 billion) in loans and credit for infrastructure and other projects.

There was no time frame on how the facilities would be distributed among Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Mr Li acknowledged how the countries involved were all "family".

Of course, underlying or overhanging all these substantial offers of financial largesse is the bigger promise of what is to come from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund, all of which would result in greater use of the yuan and a Co-Prosperity Sphere centred on Beijing, not to mention huge bilateral contracts and loans with individual Asean countries, including our own.

With the piling up of all these money, it is little wonder there is a gravitational pull of countries in the region towards China.

The extent of it, however, varies, depending on need and pride.

Like individuals, some countries may sell their soul for money. Others may even trade territorial integrity.

The diplomacy of relations with China among countries of the region - despite the brave front of Asean unity and centrality - is thus rather murky.

So it might be said that China has it made. However, China is undermining its economic attraction through its statements and actions supporting its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.

There seems to be a miscalculation on how far it can go but still have Asean countries eating out of its hand and gawking at its financial promise.

Even if there are domestic political considerations for China's harsh and inflexible stand, there equally is this self-belief now in China's economic and military weight. Suddenly, China wants to negotiate only with claimant Asean states bilaterally, not Asean as a whole.

The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea is being impressed on China by Singapore, representing Asean, to cover both naval vessels and coast guards in territorial waters as well.

Even this has so far not gained any traction with China.

Asean must show it cannot be bought, that it is not without principles and is not spineless.

• The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. For more, see www.asianews.network

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Asean's love-hate relationship with China'. Print Edition | Subscribe