By KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN
If Asean and China again fail to overcome their difference over the guidelines for their proposed conduct in the disputed sea in the near future, it could be attributed to the US factor.
Do not let the festive mood of "zhong qiu jie"—the mid-autumn festival in Beijing—fool you. Throughout last week's holidays, officials at Chaoyangmen—the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—worked around the clock following the body language and every word of the Asean and US leaders before, during and after their second meeting in New York on September 24. Beijing wanted to know whether they were ganging up against the Middle Kingdom or not.
The joint statement released after Friday's summit between President Barack Obama and Asean leaders was rather comprehensive and a positive one, demonstrating both sides' paramount goodwill, without antagonising their friends and alliance. It contains two clear messages.
First of all, from now on Asean and the US are strategic partners in principles and policies. This represents a great-leap-forward commitment, given the condescending view Washington used to have towards the grouping and its stands on global issues.
This collaborative effort, which still has a long way to go, will have far reaching consequences in shaping the future strategic landscape in Asia. To accomplish this task, an eminent persons' group will be set up to prepare a five-year action plan (2011-15) by the end of next year when they meet again in Indonesia.
Secondly, the Asean-US strategic partnership is not aimed at China but for peace and stability in the region. It avoided the mentioning of the problem in the South China Sea and the US positions made in Hanoi in July. The earlier draft proposed by the US,specifying the dispute and ways to resolve it, was eventually suppressed at the Asean leaders' request. Kudos should go to them for their strong resistance and solidarity in warding off pressure from the US side.
It was replaced by a more general statement of intention (paragraph 18) which reaffirms the importance of unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation and relevant international laws including the peaceful settlement of disputes. To foreign policy analysts, this self-explanatory paragraph does not need any elaboration as it automatically refers to the South China Sea and an existing code of conduct promoted by Asean.
After the draft joint statement was leaked to the US media ahead of the New York meeting, China's diplomatic mechanism went into full operation. Beijing issued a directive to its embassies based in all Asean countries urging their host countries to reject the US prepared document, otherwise it would have dire consequences for their ties. For the Chinese side, the mere naming of the conflict, which it argues has nothing to do with the US, is tantamount to an attempt to internationalise this sensitive issue.
At least for the time being, the Asean leaders have been wise to heed China's concern with seriousness. Likewise, the US also plays along. After all, it has succeeded in raising the profile of the South China Sea and the importance of Asean-US strategic relations. Given the current effort by the US and China to work out their delicate relations over currency and other economic issues, insisting on the maritime dispute would render destructive impacts on the world's most important bilateral relations.
Throughout its Asean chair, Vietnam has been instrumental in discussing the issue in discreet ways, knowing full-well any displayed enthusiasm would raise China's eyebrows. Previous Asean chairs, Singapore and Thailand—both were non-claimants—avoided it altogether. It is interesting to note that even with Hanoi's extreme caution, the China-Vietnam relations have continued to take a beating. Although several top Vietnamese leaders have visited China this year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, none of the top Chinese leaders has yet set foot on Vietnam.
For the past 15 years after the Mischief Reefs incident in March 1995, Asean and China have been quite successful in containing the conflicts as a mere bilateral matter. Then, exactly 64 days ago, the US entered the fray by commenting on the international aspect of the longstanding territorial conflict—freedom and safety of navigation. While this concern is not new, the timing and way the US expressed it is. By pinpointing its backing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2002) between Asean and China, Washington has indeed waved an international red flag—not to mention recent disputes China has ahd with Japan and South Korea.
Washington's dual decisions to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation last July and to join the East Asia Summit recently have levelled out its strategic level playing field on par, if not greater, with the level of China's long-held preference. That explains why Beijing has reacted strongly the way it has. Despite the current cordial Asean-China ties, there is one dark spot - no progress made on joint cooperation related to the South China Sea.
Judging from the Asean leaders' performance, they think they have what it takes to invite major powers to play real-politic in their backyard. In the past four decades, Asean was happy to serve as a fulcrum for these players to exchange views and build up confidence. They like Asean because it is a non-threatening entity and causes no harm. Now, with the wind of change shifts to East Asia, Asean wants to increase its stake and become a player too—no longer a sitting duck—as in the Cold War. Shaping the future strategic environment affecting the region of these powers is their common objective.
As great powers, big and small, are fully imbedded inside the Asean structure and political culture, the frequently asked questions these days are: Can Asean handle all these players at once? Is Asean a key player or just a mere bystander? Will the US-China cooperation and competition undermine Asean solidarity? How can Asean escape being a tool of the US or China?
With Asean, China and the US engaged in triangular relations, it would be hard to predict the outcome. For instance, if Asean and China again fail to overcome their difference over the guidelines for their proposed conduct in the disputed sea in the near future, it could be attributed to the US factor. That would further harden positions of Asean and China. Beijing has already said its sovereignty in the South China Sea is unchallengeable as, like Taiwan, it is one of its core national interests.
In more ways than one, the outcome of the New York meeting could now provide a much need impetus for China and Asean to work closely to break the impasse and make some progress on this front.
Both sides must compromise and agree on the language acceptable to all so that the guidelines can move forward. Indeed, to divert external involvement in this dispute, the two sides will have to demonstrate their efficacy in preventing, containing and resolving together their common challenges in the region.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is senior editor and columnist at the Bangkok-based English-language daily newspaper, The Nation. This article appears in The Nation on Monday.