Asean-China relations took a heavy battering last year. Celebrations for the 25th anniversary of dialogue relations were muted and overshadowed by disagreements over the South China Sea. The strength of that relationship might have been severely tested, but the breadth and depth of ties that have endured a quarter of a century provided sufficient cover for all parties to weather the storm.
The goodwill on both sides eventually prevailed and was evident at last Wednesday's Fifth Session of the 12th National People's Congress, one of the most important meetings on China's political calendar.
At a press conference to mark the conclusion of the congress, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang struck an optimistic note on Asean-China ties.
In yet another message that resonated positively across the region, he affirmed China's policy of always putting "Asean in a priority position in (its) neighbourhood diplomacy". He also underscored China's support for Asean community-building and its centrality.
Premier Li further found favour with South-east Asians by lifting a page from the Asean playbook. He professed that "China does not want to see any party feeling compelled to choose sides under the influence of the Cold War mentality".
Indeed, Asean leaders have vociferously conveyed their unease at being caught between the United States and China in their rivalry. It appears that this point has finally registered with the top Chinese leadership.
On the South China Sea, Premier Li expressed the hope that "specific disputes be resolved through dialogue by the parties directly concerned and all countries in the region work together for peace, stability and development".
On balance, Premier Li's statements bode well for the future of Asean-China ties, but the jury is still out on whether China will walk the talk.
Almost on cue, Mr Li's reassuring words to Asean were put to the test when the Hainan Daily, a state-owned newspaper, quoted Sansha City mayor Xiao Jie as saying that the local government would build an environment- monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, rattling the Philippines. The Wall Street Journal then reported that the controversial references to Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) had been removed from the article, suggesting that the announcement was "unauthorised".
But the Sansha City mayor's statement should not be brushed away. Sansha City was established by the Chinese government in 2012 as a prefecture-level city to administer China's maritime interests in the South China Sea, making Mr Xiao the most senior Chinese official on the ground privy to Chinese plans for the contested shoal.
The mayor's faux pas raises a set of questions. Was Mr Xiao merely an overzealous prefecture official speaking candidly? Did he, in fact, jump the gun by prematurely making the announcement? These conjectures are troubling in two respects.
First, if the announcement is attributed to the ambition of a local government official, it foreshadows the breakdown of the central government's control over lower levels of the hierarchy. China's long history is full of local officials taking unauthorised initiatives - sometimes to the detriment of the national interest - when the "mountains are high and the emperor is far away".
When applied to the case of the South China Sea disputes, rogue actions of local leaders that are out of step with the thinking of the central leadership could potentially create new "facts on the ground" that will lock Beijing into a path not of its choosing. There is some measure of comfort that the erroneous article was summarily corrected, a reassuring indication of Beijing's firm handling to prevent further damage.
Nevertheless, this episode all but confirms the widely held perception that strategic policies and decisions at the highest level are not fully understood or implemented at the operational level, raising the spectre of unintended outcomes in Asean-China relations.
Second, the impact of Mr Xiao's retracted statement could damage China's relations with the Philippines and Asean if China harbours designs on the Scarborough Shoal. The proposed construction, regardless of its intent, will unravel the tenuous strategic detente between Beijing and Manila. It will also call into question Premier Li's aspiration for "peace and stability in the South China Sea", casting the spotlight on the disconnect between Chinese diplomatic pronouncements on the one hand, and its intentions and actions on the other.
The mismatch between China's stated policy and actions on the ground also raises suspicions that the protracted negotiations on the Code of Conduct is a way to buy China time to expand and consolidate its military footprint in the South China Sea.
The Scarborough Shoal fracas will have important ramifications for China's relations with the Philippines and Asean. The Philippines will most likely push back strongly if China moves ahead to consolidate its claims over the Scarborough Shoal. China's challenge of that "red line" may bring the Arbitral Tribunal award back in play with the Philippines. Any downward spiral of the Philippines-China relationship will have an impact on Manila's chairmanship of Asean.
There are also clear signs that Asean member states are uncomfortable with developments in the South China Sea. The press release by the chairman of the Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat issued on Feb 21 highlighted that "a number of ministers expressed concerns over recent developments and escalations of activities in the (South China Sea) area which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region".
The onus is on China to streamline its security interests with its diplomatic posture and match pronouncements with actions. For this reason, the Scarborough Shoal is instructive for the South China Sea claimants and Asean. For the former, it is a wake-up call on the realities of bilateral negotiations with a stronger power. For Asean, there are different lessons to be drawn from the apparent disconnect between China's words and its deeds.
In any case, as much as Asean and China would want to keep the South China Sea out of the spotlight, the disputes cannot be wished away. While Asean and China are committed to concluding the negotiations on the Framework of the Code of Conduct, both sides are a long way from putting flesh to the bare-bones framework. In the meantime, all parties need to pay heed to maintaining a conducive environment to give diplomacy a chance.
•The writer is head of the Asean Studies Centre at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
•SEA View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Asean contends with gap between China's words and deeds'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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