The recent failure, the first in 45 years, of Asean to craft a joint communique in Phnom Penh has churned up a string of issues, virtually of a classical character.
My view, which I had stated in my article, Geopolitics of China, published last year, is that the critical proving ground for Chinese geopolitical acumen lies in South-east Asia.
China’s claim in the Spratly (Nansha) Islands is not watertight.
While the Chinese, through sheer strength, may have inducted some countries into their orbit, a coalition by the neighbours is what China fears.
These observations seem to have come to a head at the Asean Ministerial Meeting chaired by Cambodia in Phnom Penh earlier this month.
Sovereignty is just about the most emotive issue. It is usually claimed with nationalistic impulses and tenacity, sometimes without clean-cut rationality.
In the light of geography, how tenable is China’s claim in the South China Sea disputes? The country has generally managed to face the world on some form of moral ground, but not this time.
A climb-down looks like a fair option, if a face-saving alternative can be devised.
The proposed code of conduct to obviate the use of force may be an embryonic stage for a gang-up that Beijing fears – it had better be nipped.
The Americans, whom China accuses of interference, are probably seeking to keep their prestige as a half-reluctant guardian, a role, not always voluntarily assumed, that has been incrementally occasioned by major events for more than six decades. They cannot afford to be seen as bystanders.
Cambodia, the chair at the Asean ministers’ meeting, conducted the proceedings more or less in China’s orbit.
Joint exploration of resources may be the eventual solution to the disputes at the Spratlys.
It takes time to achieve conciliation and to work out the numbers.
A solution had better be found before attitudes get ossified.
The article is available here: Asean must find a solution before attitudes harden (ST, 31 July 2012)