TENSIONS in the South China Sea over conflicting territorial claims between the member states of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and China have become the thorniest obstacle for regional peace and prosperity in South-east Asia.
But now, as a result of a confluence of changes in regional conditions and Thai domestic politics, a promising way forward has emerged.
As country coordinator for Asean-China relations from 2012 to 2015, Thailand has an opportunity to play an important brokering role. This is particularly so when it comes to implementing the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
The DOC explicitly committed the signatories ''to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned''.
Since then, however, China has been reluctant to upgrade the DOC into a legally binding code of conduct (COC), preferring instead to negotiate individually with each country. The short window of coordination available to Bangkok means that if a concrete COC is not in place by 2015, prospects for a peaceful resolution may sour.
Thailand's unique position
OF ALL the non-claimant mainland states in South-east Asia, Thailand is the most suitable broker. The Asean states whose maritime claims overlap with those of China are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Singapore and Indonesia are maritime states without the right profiles to be seen as an impartial broker. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are not as equipped and seasoned.
Thailand holds a special relationship with China. Indeed, no other Asean state gets along as well with China without being a Beijing client of sorts.
Thus it falls to Thailand as a founding state and the birthplace of Asean to come up with a regional document that China and the Asean claimant states can agree to. Settling regional disputes is a well-known Thai diplomatic trait. When Asean was formed, it was the Thais who mediated in the Konfrontasi conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia, and prompted the original five Asean states - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - to cohere.
Bangkok has been relatively inactive diplomatically for much of the past decade, owing to its domestic political conflict. This conflict has not gone away. But it does appear to have reached a plateau - a sort of new normal - thus allowing for more attention to be paid to foreign affairs.
Last year, Thailand's stewardship of the DOC and COC appeared tentative, partly because the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was still insecure about its post-election power. Ms Yingluck's ruling Pheu Thai party won the election in July 2011 by a wide margin. But the government then had to deal with major floods. Street protests followed last year.
Now that the government has passed the midway mark of its four-year term, however, it has become more confident, with ministers pressing ahead with domestic policies despite persistent criticisms. Ms Yingluck has also become the most frequently travelled Thai leader ever.
The fact that the Yingluck government is not well-versed in foreign affairs may also be an advantage. This is because it will enable Thai diplomats to display their characteristic professionalism while playing a greater role in policy formulation.
China's new approach
IN RECENT months, China has shown more flexibility in implementing the DOC and broaching the terms of the COC. The Asean claimant states, however, are unlikely to see China's new posture very positively. After all, China has not agreed to any fundamental changes.
One issue is whether China would be willing to abandon its unilateral nine-dashed line map, which virtually claims the entire South China Sea. Another is whether Beijing would be willing to submit itself to a rules-based system in recognition of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). These are the contentious issues that Thailand as coordinator will have to tackle next year.
Thailand's main achievement this year was persuading China to agree to work on the implementation of the DOC and discuss the terms of reference of the COC at the same time. Previously, China would not broach this latter subject, arguing that it was pointless because the DOC was not fully implemented.
Next year, Thailand will try to make progress on the COC by building on the existing momentum.
Fortunately, the Chinese leadership is showing more pragmatism and good sense. Last year, China was accused of splitting Asean during Cambodia's chairmanship. The failure of the 10-member organisation to issue a joint statement after its annual summit was an unprecedented setback. Members could not agree over references to the South China Sea. Cambodia was deplored by some Asean diplomats as doing Beijing's bidding.
Now under a new administration led by President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Beijing appears to have changed tack, exhibiting more flexibility but not yet making key concessions. China's willingness to broach the COC in concrete terms and to press ahead with the DOC implementation in other areas should be welcome.
For now, Asean has prioritised three key areas. They are: the cultivation of trust; the prevention of disputes; and the resolution of disputes in a manner that safeguards security in the South China Sea.
Maritime cooperation on search-and-rescue operations and the establishment of a hotline to address urgent disputes have also made progress. Asean claimants that feel insecure about Chinese intentions in the South China Sea need to back off a little to provide space for coordination and to further entice China to play by the rules.
US pivot questioned
THE first Obama administration made a huge mark on Asia. This was indicated by President Barack Obama declaring himself to be a ''Pacific'' president and the United States' new strategy of pivoting towards Asia.
But Mr Obama's absence at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Bali and the East Asia Summit in Brunei this month, as a result of Washington's fiscal problems, could weaken US influence. The credibility and commitment of the US' rebalance towards Asia will also likely face scrutiny as Washington puts down its stakes in the Middle East and is hemmed in by domestic priorities.
This means Asean is more on its own and will face more growing pains. Yet, from this challenge of China's nuanced assertiveness and the US' distractions and shifting priorities, Asean may be forced to get its act together - and keep it together.
Thailand is a US treaty ally, China's special partner, an Asean founder, and trusted friend to all the major powers in the region. But it will have its work cut out for it on the South China Sea. It will be a test for 21st century Thai diplomacy at a time when Thailand's domestic setting is more democratic and unruly.
Thailand has to be prepared to broker hard and leverage its diplomatic and political capital, perhaps in tandem with non-claimant Myanmar in the Asean chair next year, for the effective implementation of the DOC and for the formulation and codification of the COC. Doing it right means Bangkok will have to ruffle some feathers of friends and partners. But as long as this is done in a fair and judicious fashion, it is likely to yield a tangible and acceptable outcome for regional peace and stability.
The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.