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12 Aug, 2014

Chinese commentary: Do not let U.S. stoke disputes amongst ASEAN

By Zhao Minghao

Beijing, 2014-08-12 (China Daily) – The annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting was held recently in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, with the disputes and situation in the South China Sea on the agenda.

This is not the first time that the ARF has touched upon the South China Sea disputes. In July 2010, at the ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Hanoi, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the disputes were concerned with the United States’ national interests and solving them in line with international laws would be the key to regional stability. Her speech was considered to mark a new twist of US policy line vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes.

The disputes have since then become a key part of the implementation of the US’ “pivot to Asia” policy, as well as an increasingly thorny issue in China-US exchanges. Especially so since China operated an oil rig near the Xisha Islands in April, which many US observers believed was part of China’s speeding up of its “salami slicing” strategy and called for a response to it.

Before the current ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, the US and its allies made multiple moves. In July, US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel advised a “freeze” on actions aggravating disputes in the South China Sea, namely that related parties stop occupying more islands or reefs and establishing outposts, avoid changing landforms and do not take unilateral actions against any other country. While on the surface this initiative might reasonably opt for peace, but in the eyes of Beijing at least, it would actually legalize certain nations’ illegal occupying of islands and reefs in the South China Sea in past decades, as well as bestow on the US the status of “arbiter”.

The Philippines echoed the US’ initiative by claiming it would propose a three-step process to the ARF, namely suspending all actions, setting up a code of conduct among involved parties and solving disputes through international arbitration. Both initiatives seemed to gain support from several nations, and, as Washington and Manila expected, China would face the most coordinated pressure at the ARF.

The US is also trying to improve the binding effect and enforcement mechanism of international arbitration. For example, whether a nation accepts arbitration of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea can be taken as the prerequisite of participating in multinational military exercises or the Arctic Council. The US can also consider strengthening economic pressure on the involved Chinese SOEs like China National Offshore Oil Corp, which is reported to build floating liquefied natural gas carriers and explore underwater gas.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has been strengthening its maritime force. Since Benigno Aquino took office in 2010, the Philippine government has already invested 40 billion PHP ($910 million) on purchasing frigates, anti-submarine helicopters and long-range patrol aircraft, with a further plan to install advanced radar and a coastal warning system in the disputed sea area. Japan and Vietnam signed an agreement in early August, according to which Japan will give six ships to Vietnam to empower its maritime police. The Vietnamese government issued an order that all vessels of its Fishery Resources Supervision Department be equipped with weapons like pistols and machine guns as of Sept 15.

On July 11, Nguyen Phuoc Tuong, a former adviser to two Vietnamese prime ministers, said Vietnam must form an alliance with the US “to defeat the new Chinese expansionism” in an op-ed on The New York Times. Japan is preparing for the first Japan-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ meeting in November, which many believe is to counterbalance China’s emerging maritime power.

All the heated disputes about the South China Sea make the ARF Foreign Ministers’ Meeting especially important. On Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China supports and advocates a “dual-track” approach to solving the South China Sea disputes, namely that disputes should be addressed by the concerned countries peacefully through friendly negotiations, while peace and stability in the South China Sea should be jointly maintained by China and ASEAN countries. That means China is willing to embrace a multilateralism spirit in pacifying the situation and willing to negotiate with the parties involved in the disputes in a rule-based manner, though it will not accept any new trouble caused by certain nations.

To some extent, China and the US are competing over South China Sea issues and such competition is on proposing initiatives and rules that can attract more international support with a firmer legal and moral basis.

It should be noted, specifically, that China as a committed supporter of ASEAN and related mechanisms should clarify that it is not seeking to divide ASEAN. Over the years, China has hosted about one-third of the cooperation programs within the ARF framework; in 2015 it will co-host six programs together with ASEAN nations, which cover disaster-relief, maritime security, preventive diplomacy and cybersecurity.

These are good opportunities for ASEAN and China to improve their relations. Both sides need to prevent the maritime disputes from poisoning mutual relations. They cannot afford to be strategically misguided.

The author is a research fellow with the Charhar Institute and adjunct fellow with the Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University.