Code of conduct for South China Sea can defuse time bomb

Andrew Leung says a code of conduct to avoid hostilities will help region refocus on growth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2012, 2:55am

The curtains of domestic politics have barely come down and the United States and China have already shifted their attention back to the Asean geopolitical chessboard in their battle for influence over the Asia-Pacific.

US President Barack Obama's first trip overseas after his re-election victory and Wen Jiabao's probable last visit to the region as premier underscore just how much is at stake for both countries.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has always been important to Beijing: it is at the heart of China's regional supply and production chain, straddling vital sea lanes for merchandise trade on which China relies for some 50 per cent of its gross domestic product, double the US' proportion.

The South China Sea lanes are also critical conduits for transporting fuel. The region is a treasure trove of energy and valuable resources waiting to be exploited. Strategically, it is also where the "first island chain", China's Pacific coastal maritime defence perimeter, is situated.

Until recently, long-standing territorial disputes in these waters were largely left on the back burner as China carefully built harmonious relations around its periphery.

But the calm was disrupted after the US began its Asia pivot. While it repeatedly assured China it was merely rebalancing forces in the region rather than embarking on an anti-China containment policy, China's neighbours with rival maritime claims have become emboldened. Rising nationalism in emerging South Asian economies also means they are less receptive to the overarching economic weight of the 800-pound panda. So the US pivot has become a useful geopolitical and military counterweight for China's neighbours, even if none of them want to be corralled into an anti-China bloc.

It was hence no surprise that Wen, at the Asean and East Asian summits in Phnom Penh, tried hard to steer the focus away from the South China Sea disputes to the mutual economic benefits in the soon-to-be-launched Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The initiative is expected to incorporate 16 nations: the 10 Asean states, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Not to be outdone by China, the US is pushing for a US-Asean free trade agreement, through accelerated efforts to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership off the ground. The TPP presently includes the US, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Mexico, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, with others still in negotiations. The elephant in the TPP room is, of course, China. The US is also likely to want a seat in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

But trade is not everything in the South China Sea. Asean members have grown increasingly anxious that any belligerent misfiring over the territorial disputes in the area may escalate to a full-scale war with unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences.

It was with this concern in mind that in Phnom Penh, Southeast Asian leaders asked China to begin formal talks "as soon as possible" to craft a legally binding accord aimed at preventing an outbreak of violence over the disputed maritime territories. A war in the South China Sea would be anathema to the US as much as it would be to China, its neighbours and the rest of the world.

Strategically, of course, it would be advantageous for China to negotiate bilaterally in its territorial disputes. But in light of the increasing nationalism among its rival claimants, it would be somewhat naïve to hope for an early settlement.

Now, with the added assurance of the US pivot, these nations are even less likely to succumb to pressure from China for one-on-one negotiation, even if, strictly speaking, territorial disputes are essentially bilateral issues.

For China to attempt to throw its weight around would be counter-intuitive.

There is no reason the territorial disputes cannot be separated from safe maritime conduct. The disputes can be put aside to be dealt with later while genuine efforts are made to reach an internationally binding code of conduct. This can be aimed exclusively at preventing military mishaps and avoiding escalation of conflict without compromising each side's claim to territory.

Such a code of conduct would help defuse the ticking time bomb in the region. For the US, it would help to anchor its rebalancing as part of an American global "grand strategy" as expounded by American foreign-policy doyen Zbigniew Brzezinski. For China, it would help redirect focus in Asean and regional relations back to economic co-operation and mutual benefits. It would also set at ease the minds of the Asean nations and others in the region, so they could turn their attention back to growth.

With mounting stand-offs in the South China Sea, a binding code of red lines stands a good chance of defusing growing tensions, regardless of territorial disputes. My bet is that what is of benefit to all is bound to happen, sooner rather than later.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong