No blowing hot and cold over disputes

The recent meeting of Asean foreign ministers in Naypyitaw offered them an opportunity, among other things, to update themselves on South-east Asia's relations with China. These ties are multifaceted, reflecting the region's stake in a prosperous and confident China, and Beijing's corresponding interest in its partnership with a crucial neighbouring region. It is natural that the South China Sea dispute should have come up during the meeting. The issue has the potential of undermining what both sides stand to gain from a rising Asia.

The Asean ministers called for quick progress on a long-delayed Code of Conduct (COC) to manage the maritime dispute. China has not been forthcoming in its response to such urging. It has stuck to its position that the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) on the sea should be implemented and observed properly before the more binding COC comes into effect. However, the reality is that the DOC is required because destabilising maritime actions are ominously pushing apart the claimant countries in the dispute, particularly China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

China recently proposed hosting informal meetings with South-east Asian leaders to improve ties. Bifurcating discussions on the dispute - by separating them into China's direct talks with rival claimants and its collective talks with Asean - would not help because even non-claimant Asean states have a fundamental interest in ensuring that international freedom of navigation prevails in the South China Sea. Armed conflict stemming from unresolved territorial claims would impinge on that common Asean goal.

It is for these reasons that Asean has been so persistent in addressing Beijing on the South China Sea issue. In the circumstances, it is essential for officials to work on concrete aspects of the COC that would create a climate of trust.

Commentators who see Asean as acting as an American proxy against China miss the point. The South China Sea issue is much closer to home to Asean than it is to the United States, and it is to their own interests therefore that South-east Asian countries will look as they seek a modus vivendi with Beijing. Suggestions for a multilateral agreement to end all potentially inflammatory actions should be studied on their merits and not dismissed simply because of their American provenance. Indeed, a more cooperative stance by Beijing would reduce the chances of the South China Sea turning into a new cockpit of major power rivalry.

Reassuringly, the sparks that flew at the Shangri-La Dialogue in May-June were absent at Myanmar. Playing a constructive role is far better than blowing hot and cold over disputes.