Conflicting currents in the South China Sea
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - Confronted with a potentially explosive conflict between its members and China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has pushed to restart negotiations for a regional code of conduct (CoC) to settle territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
In a telling sign, the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) held in Brunei between June 30 and July 2 took a radically different approach from the previous meeting held last year in Phnom Penh, where the 10-member regional organization failed to even agree to discuss the South China Sea disputes.
This time, the regional grouping succeeded both in developing an internal consensus on the issue and soliciting China's agreement
to negotiate towards a binding CoC. Beijing agreed to host senior officials to discuss a CoC in September in this year. The meeting will be supported by parallel efforts by an "Eminent Persons and Experts Group" to draft the outline of a potential new legal regime for the maritime area.
Spearheaded by Brunei's proactive chairmanship, Southeast Asian leaders agreed at the ASEAN Summit meeting held in April this year to place the territorial disputes at the forefront of its regional talks. The deadlock over the disputes has threatened regional security and raised questions about intra-organizational unity.
An academic gathering held earlier this year in Bangkok and co-organized by India's Center for Asian Strategic Studies and Thailand's Institute for Strategic and International Studies brought together prominent regional strategic analysts who emphasized the importance of preserving ASEAN unity and fast-tracking the establishment of a binding CoC.
The conference's outcome articulated the possible contours of a regional dispute-settlement mechanism, which was forwarded to relevant regional governments and inter-governmental organizations. The proposal signaled a convergence between track 1 (governments) and track 2 (academics) discourses, with both sides recognizing the need to diplomatically address the disputes before they explode into a full-blown conflict.
In that direction, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang made a state visit to China in late June in a bid to deepen bilateral political ties by increasing the frequency of high-level exchanges and furthering the institutionalization of the new Steering Committee for Vietnam-China Bilateral Cooperation. Both sides reportedly talked about their maritime disputes during the meeting, agreeing to a set of bilateral principles to resolve their differences amicably.
The two sides emphasized the importance of a long-term mutually acceptable solution and agreed to adhere to principles of international law as well as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DoC) in resolving their bilateral territorial disputes. Sang also sought greater coordination between Vietnam's Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and China's Ministry of Agriculture.
Both sides also signed an agreement to establish a hotline to manage incidents arising from activities in the disputed areas. These agreements, however, were consistent with Beijing's long-held insistence that the disputes be settled through bilateral rather than multilateral means. That hard-line stance has raised doubts about whether China would agree to negotiate a binding CoC through ASEAN. (The 2002 DoC brokered by ASEAN was legally non-binding and thus lacked any enforcement mechanisms.)
China's agreement, at least in principle, to restart talks towards a binding multilateral CoC thus caught many strategic analysts by surprise. "China and ASEAN countries are close neighbors and we are like members of one big family," China's new Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during the AMM in Brunei. "We believe that a united, prosperous and dynamic ASEAN that seeks greater strength through unity is in China's strategic interest."
As the former Chinese ambassador to Japan (2004-07), Wang has considerable experience in crisis management and diplomatic damage control. Significantly, Wang stated at the AMM that China is willing to eliminate any "disturbance" or "interference" in developing a CoC with ASEAN members.
At the same time, China characterized the Philippines' growing reliance on revitalized military ties with the United States and invitation to strengthen ties with Japan as a "strategic misjudgment" in state media. At the AMM, however, Wang projected a benign China that "will continue to properly handle its specific differences with some countries through friendly consultations".
After months of hectic shuttling across Europe and the Middle East, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed Washington's desire for a speedy, diplomatic resolution of the disputes.
"We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and in the conduct of the parties," Kerry said during the ASEAN-US Ministerial Meeting held alongside the AMM in Brunei. "We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct in order to help ensure stability in this vital region."
Still, there are many questions about whether China's civilian leadership has the will or ability to rein in the People's Liberation Army and its paramilitary forces, both of which have been pivotal in recent South China Sea confrontations.
After securing the disputed Scarborough Shoal after a standoff with Philippine forces last year, China has in recent weeks moved to consolidate control over the hydrocarbon-rich Reed Bank off the western Filipino island of Palawan.
The Philippines has desperately sought external support, mainly from the US and Japan, to retain its tenuous control over the Second Thomas Shoal, a critical gateway to the disputed Reed Bank. As the Philippines moves to reinforce its forces in the Second Thomas Shoal's area, China warned of a possible "counterstrike" in state media on June 29.
In response the next day, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario accused China of "militarizing" the South China Sea, while Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin called for the establishment of Japanese military installations to reinforce America's revolving military presence in the Philippines.
The renewed tensions and pitched rhetoric have raised the stakes for a binding CoC. For proponents of a minimalist CoC, the priority is to engage in a series of negotiations aimed at a binding set of agreements that will govern the conduct of parties and the resolution of disputes involving more than two claimants.
Such a CoC would be a logical extension of the non-binding 2002 DOC, which called for a peaceful settlement of disputes and the renunciation of the threat and use of force to advance territorial claims. It would also be consistent with the Indonesia-sponsored "six-point principles" initiative, which emphasizes the resolution of maritime claims based on international law, namely the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea.
From China's perspective, a minimalist CoC would allow Beijing to settle bilaterally disputes that involve only one of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Strategic analysts expect Beijing to push this caveat when discussions held in China open in September.
On the other hand, proponents of a maximalist CoC look towards a more comprehensive deal, which will (i) question China's far-reaching nine-dash line map claims to the South China Sea, and (ii) create an enforceable multilateral dispute-settlement mechanism that will prevent China from bilaterally outmaneuvering its smaller neighbors.
So far, it seems that ASEAN's leaders, from frontline states like Vietnam to the region's informal leader Indonesia, have a minimalist version in mind. The minimalist version is viewed as a more feasible approach, which coincides with ASEAN's gradualist institutional predisposition.
That could lead to a degree of separation between the Philippines and Vietnam, the two ASEAN states with the strongest claims vis-a-vis China. Given Vietnam's astute balancing of great power relations between China and the US, it is in a better position than the Philippines to simultaneously push for a breakthrough on purely bilateral disputes as well as a region wide CoC.
For the Philippines, a maximalist CoC would be the best way forward, precisely because its communication channels with Beijing have been severely strained by its call for revitalized security ties with both Japan and the US. But while ASEAN bids to reconcile these divergent conceptions of a CoC in the South China Sea, the risk of a military confrontation is simultaneously rising.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's (ADMU) Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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