S.E.A. VIEW

Malaysia passes critical first test as Asean chair

A Philippine military photo taken on July 17, 2012, showing Chinese fishing vessels anchored at Fiery Cross Reef on the disputed Spratly islands. Concerns about whether Malaysia would manage the South China Sea dispute impartially were allayed at the
A Philippine military photo taken on July 17, 2012, showing Chinese fishing vessels anchored at Fiery Cross Reef on the disputed Spratly islands. Concerns about whether Malaysia would manage the South China Sea dispute impartially were allayed at the recent Asean foreign ministers' retreat.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Malaysia is keenly aware of the heavy responsibility that comes with holding the Asean chair. It understands that every speech and pronouncement by the Malaysian leadership will be closely watched and analysed.

The scrutiny is, perhaps, most intense in its management of the South China Sea dispute.

Malaysia passed the first test commendably at the Asean foreign ministers' retreat, which ended on Jan 28.

Before it became Asean chair last November, Malaysia faced questions about its impartiality, given its close relations with China. Would Malaysia succumb to China's charms and the allure of economic benefits?

If the retreat is any indication, fears that Malaysia would defer too much to China's interests will be unfounded.

Half of the points contained in Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman's statement on the "exchange of views on regional and international issues" pertain to the South China Sea.

There was no skirting around the issue or sweeping it under the carpet. Besides affirming the importance of the full implementation of the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the early conclusion of the code of conduct (COC) talks, the statement contained points on disaster management, exercising restraint in the conduct of activities and land reclamation in the South China Sea.

The statements were crafted in an objective manner without assigning blame or responsibility towards any parties. Nevertheless, it was evident that a reference on land reclamation pointed to the Philippines' protest over China's reclamation works on the Johnson South Reef.

It was important that the grievance of an Asean member was embraced as a common concern by all, which would be a sign of Asean's camaraderie and unity. It was also equally important that the tone of the statement was firm but not antagonistic.

Asean navigated through the foreign ministers' retreat by setting a constructive tone in pressing China to move the COC talks along, without pushing China over the diplomatic cliff. The ball is now in China's court to reciprocate Asean's goodwill.

Convincing China to call for the next round of the COC talks will not be easy. This task falls on Thailand's shoulders, as designated by Asean, but is the responsibility of all. An affirmative response by China will boost Asean-China relations, while delays by the country could raise suspicions of its strategic intentions and chip away at the goodwill and trust around the Asean table.

As the chair, Malaysia has added responsibility to bring China round to see the importance of making some progress, no matter how limited, on the COC talks.

The last thing China wants is a replay of the Phnom Penh diplomatic fiasco in 2012, when Asean failed to issue a joint communique after its summit for the first time in its history, and be fingered again as the source of Asean disunity.

The new phase of China's "Charm Offensive 2.0", which includes the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Maritime Silk Road, may not reach its full potential if the simmering distrust generated by the South China Sea row continues to fester.

Asean, in the main, had responded positively to China's more recent economic initiatives. But economic cooperation cannot be used to paper over a political dispute that the International Crisis Group has identified as a regional flashpoint.

The prescribed medication must fit the illness. A political dispute requires a political solution, and attempts to win over Asean, especially the South China Sea claimant states, by dispensing economic favours would only go so far.

It is important for China to appreciate the degree of consternation felt within Asean emanating from the South China Sea dispute. These concerns range from the safe and free passage of maritime commerce to infringement of sovereign rights. The prospect for deeper political-security cooperation between Asean and China will be dim as long as the dispute remains.

On a more optimistic note, the majority of Asean states are convinced that all parties aspire to a peaceful outcome. Singapore's Foreign Minister, Mr K. Shanmugam, sums up the Asean view: "China is serious about wanting peace and stability, and it is for us to convince China that the COC is part and parcel of that process."

Singapore, too, has an important role to play in advancing relations with China as it assumes the coordinatorship of Asean-China relations in August.

The seasoned hands of Malaysia and Singapore should be enjoined to ensure that the Asean-China relations remain on an even keel and do not detract from important regional projects such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Malaysia does not have to carry the burden of the chairmanship alone. It can count on the support of Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand to reassure China that it has a place in the unfolding Asean Community. It is equally important to impress on China that regional sentiment is not against the country.

However, no one can guarantee how long the goodwill will endure. Unfortunately, for all the good that China has done for the region, perceptions are being reshaped and increasingly seen through the lenses of the South China Sea dispute. The hope is that China will see this alarming development with clarity and work with Asean to de-escalate maritime tensions.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.