Saving Asean-China ties at a difficult time

WORKING towards a code of conduct (COC) on the South China Sea is akin to "a big meal" that Asean and China have to prepare and finish together.

The food analogy was used by a Chinese senior official at last month's retreat with her Asean colleagues in Pattaya, Thailand. It aptly described the current stalemate in coming out with the regional COC for conflicting parties in the resource-rich maritime region.

The Pattaya incident does not augur well for the future of Asean-China relations. In fact, relations look set to deteriorate further in the next several months, especially during the leadership transition in China. So far, the perception gaps between Asean and China concerning the form and substance of the COC remain unchanged.

At the retreat, Asean senior officials were quite soft-spoken this time and displayed forward-looking and neutral positions, including combative Vietnam and the Philippines, regarding the future of their ties with China. All members recognised the importance of Asean-China relations and their past achievements, this including two-way trade, which is forecast to reach US$500 billion (S$612 billion) by 2015.

Unfortunately, the sweet talk of economic success did not deter China from conveying a series of strong messages to Asean. After officials from Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines, who conducted separate bilateral talks with the Chinese delegation, compared notes, they shared one similar conclusion: China is playing tough against them - Asean as a whole.

This time, China was explicit that it would be more than willing to respond to any provocation without holding back. Given its bitter and long history of being bullied by outsiders, China would stand tall and react according to its threat perception at the time.

Within Asean, there are three schools of thought with regard to responding to the strong Chinese rhetoric. First, some Asean members view such a posture as an expression of Beijing's growing frustration because the dispute is now being discussed at the United Nations, the Non-alignment Movement and the Asia-Europe Meeting. Previously, the issue was confined to the discussions between Asean and China.

Second, others argued that China may not want to show signs of weakness due to the upcoming leadership change later this week. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who will be attending the East Asia Summit (EAS) for the last time, is not in a position to agree on any outcome of COC negotiations. The onus is on the next Asean chair, Brunei, which could yield positive results.

Third, the remaining members chose to interpret Beijing's message as another sign that rising China is no longer associated with rising opportunities as they have long believed.

In retrospect, during the July meeting in Phnom Penh, China was not ready to negotiate with Asean on the COC after earlier having expressed readiness. Now, China expressed willingness to enter into talks only after serious implementation of the guidelines agreed last year followed a full decade of negotiations. The other condition included a good atmosphere at sea. This implies that the current condition - despite the prevailing calm and absence of arms clashes - is not suitable for talks.

In Pattaya, China also revealed that the draft COC agreed on by Asean recently would not be acceptable. Beijing has been quite persistent in demanding to be a co-author with the Asean colleagues in preparing the COC.

According to officials who took part in the retreat, China reiterated that with the current Asean draft, its hands would be tied. China would be forced to produce its own counter-draft, which could further complicate future negotiations and hamper flexibility as the Asean draft needed to be cleared by all concerned governmental agencies in the countries.

During the retreat, China warned Asean to exercise self-restraint to avoid future reprisals. Otherwise, future complications for bilateral ties could not be avoided.

Given the current situation, both sides, China hoped, should return to the past practice of speaking with one voice, preventing third parties from interfering in the issue. In response, Asean reiterated that there is an urgent need to isolate ongoing misperceptions from Asean-China ties.

One way of doing that is to kick start the COC dialogue and consultation at the earliest date. As a face-saving measure for the failure to fix a date for the COC, Cambodia will instead host a joint workshop to implement the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the DOC ahead of the Asean summit this month.

Looking ahead, the prospect for better and stable Asean-China ties is slipping as domestic dynamics in claimant countries are becoming more nationalistic. In the case of China, it would take several months before the new Chinese leaders settle down, leaving room for uncertainties and ambivalence.

As such, the result of the upcoming EAS would be a prerequisite in setting a new tone and instilling confidence in the region's premier strategic forum. With Japan, South Korea, China and Asean involved in various disputed territorial claims, the EAS could turn into a mudslinging match between conflicting parties, which easily could lead to broader and deeper enmity among the members, or the perception that others are ganging up against China.

Since its establishment in 1995, meetings in the EAS have been smooth and rewarding as the members followed the agenda set forth by the rotational Asean chair without the present-day controversies. In the near future, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the region's longest reigning leader, would play an important role to guarantee this year's EAS plays out in a balanced way, with United States President Barack Obama and other top global leaders in attendance. Mr Hun Sen has an axe to grind following allegations that his country sides with China over the dispute in South China Sea.

Beyond the current chair, Asean and China should mend their relations in ways they would be able to work together again with confidence. One way is to return to the status quo of a fulcrum, as Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan has often suggested.

From China's perspective, Asean is at its best when it serves as a platform to unite, not divide the region. Most importantly, it must go beyond the current squabbling related to power interests. With major powers competing to gain further footholds in the region, China hopes that Asean should avoid being used as a platform to generate negative feelings towards Beijing.

In the near future, Asean and China will find out whether they can overcome their mistrust, misgivings as well as misconceptions often highlighted and discussed in their media. Without any improvement in this area, it is difficult to envisage improved Asean-China relations that would lead to a full implementation of the guidelines of DOC, and later on, resolving the more complicated issues related to overlapping sovereignty claims.

Cutting through all diplomatic pleasantries, it boils down to this: Asean thinks the COC would be prepared for behaviours of all parties in undefined territories of South China Sea, while China thinks it is a set of rules for others to follow in the disputed territories. The big meal prepared by Asean and China will not be ready for consumption any time soon.

The writer is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group in Thailand, which publishes the English-language daily The Nation.