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ASEAN’s balancing act with China

23 May ASEAN’s balancing act with China

Clues about the emerging character of the new Chinese leadership are emerging from its interaction with the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Following the grouping’s summit last month, China’s new Foreign Minister, Mr Wang Yi, visited the region for the first time. While ties are cooperative on many fronts, the South China Sea remains the hot-button issue that is colouring the overall relationship.

Four ASEAN members contest China’s claims to various islets and features there, with Vietnam and the Philippines more active and vocal than Malaysia and Brunei. While the grouping remains neutral, some changes are perceptible.

Last year, then ASEAN Chairman Cambodia refused any mention of the issue and triggered an unprecedented failure to reach an agreed statement. Some feared Chinese pressure would undermine ASEAN unity.

In contrast, Brunei — the grouping’s current Chairman — has so far been successful in keeping the issue on the agenda, without appearing to be one-sided.

Its leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, has stepped up to personally visit Washington, Beijing and Manila. These special efforts — all in the space of six weeks — ensure attention at the highest level. It is to the ASEAN Chairman’s credit that the summit in late April did not repeat the Phnom Penh phenomenon.

The Six-Point Principles in resolving maritime issues were re-emphasised as a basis to jump-start negotiations on a binding code of conduct. This was nothing especially new, but enough to put the process back on track and shift the onus to Beijing.

Enter the new Chinese Foreign Minister, with a visit to the region. Critics point out that Mr Wang skirted the claimants, except for Brunei.

This was, however, to be expected at a first go for a new minister, who has a deserved reputation for being smooth and skilful. Tensions have, after all, risen in recent months, with the Philippines notably active.

Manila has put up a legal challenge for international arbitration that is proceeding, despite China’s refusal to take part in it.

Beijing has instead responded outside the court, with more visits to the disputed areas by fishing and other vessels. After a recent incident at sea that involved the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman, there has been a widespread outcry against the Philippines on both the mainland and in Taiwan.


The countries chosen for Mr Wang’s visit were a deliberate choice for China. Indonesia and Singapore are non-claimants but have been notably active after the failure in Cambodia. Brunei has claims that overlap with China’s but the ASEAN Chairman has been self-restrained on the issue.

It remains to be seen, however, how engaged Thailand will be while serving as the designated coordinator for the ASEAN dialogue with China. When Mr Wang met Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the media coverage focused on whether Beijing would require the return of a baby panda born in Chiang Mai.

These four countries can serve as a core of ASEAN on the issue. In order to do so, they must aim to ensure the grouping’s unity, while responding actively but neutrally. ASEAN must help strike a balance that allows the claimant states to buy in, while maintaining China’s trust.

Further progress on the issue is possible, although by no means guaranteed.

A critical step that ASEAN leaders have urged is for officials to start work on the promised code of conduct.

Official negotiations must be at a sufficient level and pace. Only where there are issues that are more technical or too sensitive at present, should ASEAN and China appoint eminent persons to study and advise. Joint development — which China has called for — should also be considered, provided that a suitable area can be identified and agreed on.

On its part, Beijing must not abuse the process and string out discussions indefinitely. If positive steps are not forthcoming and incidents at sea escalate, diplomatic efforts will be seen as empty promises and erode goodwill with ASEAN.

A reality check will come at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that will soon bring together foreign ministers from across the Asia-Pacific.

Discussion of the South China Sea with ARF members beyond ASEAN is inevitable.

Remember that it was at the ARF, almost three years ago, that then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened on this issue, to the chargin of China.

Whether ASEAN and China can keep and handle the issues just among themselves will test and show up not only the temperament of Beijing’s leaders but also ASEAN’s mettle.

The US and others with stakes in managing peace and stability across the wider region will judge the situation accordingly.


Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor teaching international law at the National University of Singapore. He is also the author of Asia Alone: The Dangerous Post Crisis Divide from America. This article first appeared in TODAY on 23rd May 2013.