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Steer Asean-China talks towards quiet diplomacy, flexibility

07 Jul Steer Asean-China talks towards quiet diplomacy, flexibility

A legal judgment to be released on July 12 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration will bring the controversy over competing claims in the South China Sea to a high point. Yet it will not be conclusive since China will not recognise any ruling, and no one can force it to. Beijing has just lashed out at the Filipino legal challenge as being “unilateral” and against international law.

Prepare for a high-decibel propaganda drive in the run-up to and aftermath of the judgment. What is at stake goes beyond China’s relations with the Philippines and other claimants.

Witness the recent Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean)-China meeting in Kunming, where a ministerial statement was issued and then retracted because of what some consider strong words about the South China Sea. Most media reports suggest that two members, Cambodia and Laos, subsequently changed their minds, although Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen later denied succumbing to Chinese pressure.

Recall earlier bilateral meetings that China held separately with Laos, Cambodia and Brunei. China reported that each of the three agreed the South China Sea issue did not concern Asean as a whole, and yet none of these Asean members verified that position.

Some have been quick to see the Kunming meeting as a low point in ties and want Asean to stand up to China’s pressure. Yet others instead suggested that this was a sign of nerves in Beijing, despite the bold declaration that the tribunal judgment does not count.

There may be wisdom in Asean members responding flexibly, rather than being confrontational, in this period of heightened sensitivity. For China, histrionics should be avoided as the court decision approaches, and in its aftermath. All should seek a balance between quiet diplomacy and public statements. Where needed, it should be considered acceptable to issue no statement at all.

Yet if Asean does not raise its voice publicly, no one, especially not Beijing, should mistake this as rolling over on the issue. Public silence may sometimes be the necessary partner to a more candid, closed-door dialogue.

China, too, must rein in what it says and does. Demonising Manila may be easy but unhelpful. The newly inaugurated Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cannot make an immediate volte-face on the issue, even if he might later be more amenable to cooperation after the judgment.

Vietnam, another claimant, has seen a change of leadership as well as a recent historic visit by United States President Barack Obama. During the visit, a long-standing arms embargo was lifted so that Vietnam could buy American weapons to protect its claims. Hanoi’s policy balance will be watched closely.

Non-claimant Asean members are also anxious. To back up President Joko Widodo’s emphasis on maritime issues, Indonesia clamped down on illegal fishing and seized a Chinese vessel just days after the Kunming meeting. China must realise it is not the only one with domestic politics and pressure from domestic constituencies.

At the broader level, there are concerns that China’s push on this single issue is undermining the group’s unity. Efforts should be made to reframe the Asean-China dialogue and find a balance between contentious political and security issues. There are many opportunities for a more mutually beneficial relationship with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

This does not mean shelving the South China Sea issue, but instead having a broader context in discussing it. For Beijing, its leaders have always expressed support for Asean to play a central role. They, too, must not place the South China Sea above all other issues.

The topic also has a global dimension. Beijing perceives that the US is too strong and active on this issue. The US Navy continued with “freedom of navigation” patrols in contested waters just days after the Asean-China meeting. Moreover, many China experts believe the US is influencing others to tilt against Beijing.

The South China Sea has emerged as a vital part of the “great game” for global influence between the US and China. From this perspective, if Asean does not want Chinese Trojan horses, then no one should be a mini-US.

Asean must sort out its internal processes for issuing statements. While Kunming was interpreted by some as Asean disunity, others suggest that problems arose from a bureaucratic snafu. The Malaysian government released the statement, yet Laos is the Asean chair and Singapore is the coordinator for dialogue with China. The Asean Secretariat also plays a role in supporting meetings and making statements available.

Some say that each Asean member is free to release Asean statements. But in dealing with highly sensitive issues, it would be prudent to centralise and ensure a tighter process.

Going forward, Asean must combine tighter bureaucratic coordination with a more flexible diplomatic approach. Instances of quiet diplomacy, however, must not be seen as a permanent gag order. Flexibility may mean a more open discussion. Much depends on the timing and context.

In this regard, the upcoming court ruling is not the only event to watch. The Asean Regional Forum (ARF) will be held later this month, when Asean will host not only China and the US but many others. The expectation must be that key issues, including the South China Sea, will be open for discussion from their different perspectives.

The region is experiencing an upsurge in contention among major powers. Asean has played a central role in the ARF, the Asean Defence Ministers+8 meeting and the East Asia Summit. Yet it is not entirely up to Asean whether that can continue.

Not only China, but also other major powers need to support those regional processes. If a major power is yelling while remaining deaf to others, without possibility of exchange and compromise, the multilateral system will fail no matter what Asean does.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore, Faculty of Law. The 
9th ASEAN & Asia Forum will discuss the ASEAN-China relationship further. This commentary appeared in TODAY on 7 July 2016. An earlier version of the article was published in the South China Morning Post and The Jakarta Post.

Photo Credit: 
U.S. Coast Guard / U.S. Navy