Asean faces a smiling dragon with thrashing tail

FOR the 26th time since its founding, Asean leaders met in summit this week to thrash out critical issues confronting the region. There is some urgency this time over one key debate in their talks in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi island: the South China Sea. The potential flashpoints for conflict with global repercussions due to contending territorial claims showed little sign of abating. Indeed, it is hard to be optimistic about a resolution any time soon - or at all - with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noting its growing seriousness in the past year.

China, as the most powerful claimant, is increasingly adversarial despite years of patient diplomacy by Asean. Several of Beijing's recent moves to assert its claim have raised tensions further: its relocation of an oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam, sparking unusually harsh protests from Hanoi; the ramming of rival fishing vessels; and the "accidental" cutting of cables of a seismic ship.

While those affected were Vietnamese, the growing pattern of a muscular response from China was troubling the whole region and beyond.

Jaw-jaw to pour-pour. Sand, that is.

THE latest and most provocative is China's rapid land reclamation activities on submerged reefs in the Spratlys to create man-made islands - some big enough to have airstrips for fighter jets. China is clearly preparing to project its hard power from the heart of the contested waters. This highly controversial build-up shown in satellite images goes against the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which requires claimants not to engage in activities that would raise tensions. The DOC, signed in 2002, is to lead to a binding Code of Conduct (COC) but progress to this key overarching treaty seems elusive or glacial at best, as Beijing continues to drag its feet.

With continuing landfill on some of the disputed outcrops, it appears that China is shifting its stance - to paraphrase Winston Churchill - from "talk-talk" to "pour-pour". Asean's secretary-general Le Luong Minh described it this week as a move to change the status quo. This is a game changer which will doubtless complicate the search for a resolution to the South China Sea disputes.

In the meantime, China will grow stronger economically and militarily while South-east Asia could become increasingly fragile, and quarrelsome, as the pressures on their sovereignty create internal fissures. This had already happened in 2012: Asean for the first time in its history failed to issue a joint communique at its annual foreign ministers meeting in Cambodia. Since then, fears of a repeat of Cambodia 2012 have clouded Asean.

The South China Sea disputes have exposed Asean's vulnerabilities. The once impressive image of Asean unity and cohesiveness has been punctured. As China plays to its strength, some Asean member-states will again be tempted to prioritise their national interest over Asean solidarity rather than pursue them in tandem.

This scenario should not be ruled out as China shifts towards chequebook diplomacy - leveraging on its massive reserves to win friends and some say - buy influence. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a classic case of this turning point in China's diplomatic game.

South-east Asian states, or Asean as a collective, are now facing this two-front push by China - a smiling dragon on the economic track dishing out AIIB-linked infrastructure funding, even as the muscular tail flails rival claimants on the South China Sea disputes.

It will be tough for some member-states to face such a carrot-and-stick approach from China, especially the economically weaker ones.

Three challenges

ASEAN has to think hard as it faces at least three critical challenges to South-east Asia. The first is how to preserve Asean unity and solidarity over the South China Sea disputes such that these are resolved without undermining Asean cohesiveness.

To this end, a proposal by analyst Carl Thayer, a long-time observer of the South China Sea issue, may be worth considering as a first step prior to the long-delayed COC with China. Dr Thayer has proposed that Asean signs its own "Code of Conduct Treaty for South-east Asia's Maritime Commons". Individual member-states should resolve their territorial and maritime disputes with other members, thus strengthening Asean solidarity.

The second challenge is how to deter future aggression by China in the seas while the region pursues deeper economic ties with Beijing. It would be timely to promote Asean's maritime cooperation with trading partners that have stakes in the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Such maritime cooperation can begin with the United States, as a first step, and possibly expanded later to include others, such as Japan and South Korea. A recent article in RSIS Commentary by Richard Javad Heydarian and Truong-Minh Vu proposed such maritime cooperation in the form of Asean joint patrols in the South China Sea.

The third challenge is how to defuse, on a long-term basis, the South China Sea disputes at the mindshare level. Perhaps the time has come for the South China Sea to be renamed. One possibility - a more appropriate alternative - is to call it the South-east Asia Sea. The South China Sea was previously called the Champa Sea after the seventh century kingdom of Champa. The point is, it was not always known as the South China Sea. Apparently, a petition to change the name to the South-east Asia Sea has already been started.

The Philippines has also taken a similar step by calling it the West Philippine Sea. "When people keep referring to the South China Sea, there is a subliminal message that this sea belongs to a country whose name appears in the name," says a Philippine Armed Forces spokesman.

The online petition, by a Vietnamese foundation, kicked off in 2010 with at least 10,000 supporters from 76 countries, addressed to the presidents and prime ministers of 11 South-east Asian states as well as the United Nations and several international organisations.

A people-driven initiative like this is in keeping with the region's vision - emphasised by current chairman Malaysia - of a "people-oriented, people-centred Asean". It would be appropriate if this initiative grows to become a collective aspiration of the 600 million people of Asean and not the 10 governments alone.

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This article first appeared in RSIS Commentary.