Kavi Chongkittavorn, For The Straits Times

Asean's show of unity

Dignitaries pose for a photo before the 4th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers' Meeting at the Myanmar International Convention Centre (MICC) in Naypyitaw. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Dignitaries pose for a photo before the 4th East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers' Meeting at the Myanmar International Convention Centre (MICC) in Naypyitaw. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The joint communique issued on Aug 10 by the Asean foreign ministers during their final meeting in Myanmar shows that Asean claimant and non-claimant states alike are becoming more united and forceful in expressing their views on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The communique, together with a rejection of US State Secretary John Kerry's overtures and China's proposed joint statement on progress, has also demonstrated once again the grouping's determination to enhance its centrality when it comes to regional issues.

This latest surge in Asean cohesiveness was supported by both the chair, Myanmar, and coordinating country, Thailand. Hanoi and Manila, which had previously been out of step with their Asean neighbours on the issue, have also fallen in line.

During the Asean-plus-one discussion with China, Asean and China agreed on three important issues.

First of all, they agreed on the need to speed up ongoing negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). Asean and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi have called for an "early conclusion" of the COC. Of course, nobody knows for sure how early is "early". It can be one year or more, but the exact period of time does not seem to matter.

Lest we forget, Asean and China took 10 years to concur on the guidelines of the Declaration of Conduct among Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), first raised in 2002.

In the new round of meetings at the working group and senior official levels scheduled for mid-October in Bangkok, both sides are planning to set up a joint eminent and expert group to identify their related commonalities and work on a COC draft. Exchanges of information, including practical measures to reduce untoward incidents at sea, have already been agreed on.

Second, Asean and China agreed to intensify consultation on measures and mechanisms to further implement the DOC.

Third, Asean and China agreed for the first time on the idea of an "early harvest" amid their COC negotiating efforts.

The concept of an early harvest was first raised when Asean and China negotiated the free trade agreement in 2000.

When Asean and Chinese senior officials meet again, they have to define what an early harvest really means, especially in terms of the practical measures that can strengthen the implementation of the DOC.

Both sides also called for self-restraint, with parties refraining from actions that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability. Such assurance of compliance is pivotal as it is part of the DOC, and follows soon after clashes between China and Vietnam, and recent tension between China and the Philippines.

These agreements help explain why Asean did not heed Mr Kerry's call for a moratorium on activity in the disputed areas. Neither side wanted the United States to occupy the centre stage. It is an open secret that Asean prefers to see the US playing a discreet or low-profile role in the maritime disputes.

This time around, however, the US was too assertive. Attempts to bash China over the incidents in the South China Sea fell on deaf ears.

At the Naypyitaw meeting, Asean also turned down China's request to issue a joint Asean-China statement on the progress of COC negotiation because of disagreements over the final wording.

Asean insisted on mentioning the March incident in the Paracel Islands, which led to recent tension and clashes, including ways to prevent recurrences. China preferred to focus on ways to promote peace and stability in the disputed area without mentioning the clashes.   

Both Vietnam and the Philippines, the most vocal Asean members when it comes to territorial disputes with China, have also noticeably cooled down their vitriol, resorting instead to the grouping's strength and bargaining power when engaging Beijing.

Vietnam has been quite effective in using Asean as a bulwark against its northern neighbour. Currently, Vietnamese experts are preparing details of all its claims. Meanwhile, the Philippines has submitted 4,000 pages of documents, which took years to prepare.

The current attitudes of Hanoi and Manila have bolstered Asean's overall position on the COC negotiation. The three-step approach proposed by Manila calling for a freeze on destabilising factors, full implementation of the DOC, and building the COC is in line with Asean declarations.

It remains to be seen whether China's current position represents more flexibility regarding the COC process.

At this juncture, China fully understands Asean's position. As a major power, China can ignore Asean at its own peril.

The proposed Maritime Silk Road and Treaty of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation, as well as numerous other cooperative frameworks with Asean, can proceed without interruption only if there is tangible progress in the COC negotiations.

Mr Wang Yi, an old Asean hand, knows exactly what it takes to move Asean-China relations beyond the current conundrum.


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