Long way to joint Asean claim on Spratly Islands
Greg Torode expects efforts to forge a joint Asean claim over the Spratly Islands to run into some treacherous currents
Raking over the embers of a volatile year between Asean and China over South China Sea disputes, it is clear a few at least still flicker with life. Among them is the prospect of talks among Asean's four rival claimants to the Spratly archipelago - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - to settle their own positions.
On paper, at least, it is a compelling move. A common statement of claim would introduce a significant new dynamic to an equation that, right now, is looking increasingly difficult to solve. It would potentially strengthen the hand of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Beijing, of course, has repeatedly warned against any steps to "internationalise" the dispute and wants only bilateral talks to settle specific territorial claims.
Such a move would highlight the excesses of China's claim to virtually the whole sea through its nine-dash line; it could also stop the issue poisoning other Asean business, such as talks over economic and social integration. To that end, it would also stop non-claimant members scuppering on Beijing's behalf efforts to resolve South China Sea issues, as Cambodia stood accused of doing last year.
The prospect of the four hammering out a joint Asean claim is alarming China - and the fear of Beijing's wrath could yet be enough to kill discussions before they really get moving.
No one has forgotten China's formal protests to the UN when Malaysia and Vietnam announced the settling of their own maritime boundaries in 2009. Significantly, Beijing's submission included a map of the nine-dash line - a move that set alarm bells ringing across the region.
While officials from the four met discreetly on the sidelines of the Asean leaders' meeting in November, planned talks in Manila a few weeks later were postponed and a firm date has yet to be rescheduled. Officials from the Philippines and Vietnam - two once-disparate nations that now increasingly plan strategy over China and the South China Sea - did hold preliminary talks, according to envoys.
And China isn't the only problem. While Malaysia and Vietnam successfully demarcated their own boundaries, other maritime borders may prove far more complicated.
Vietnam, for example, has yet to clearly define the reach of its claimed boundaries in the eastern part of the South China Sea. While it would be politically easier for Hanoi to settle with fellow Asean members rather than China, the issue remains fraught.
Vietnam, of course, claims all of the highly strategic Spratlys chain, just like China. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim them in part.
More than its rivals, Hanoi's claims are also buttressed by occupation, and it is hard to imagine Vietnam's military strategists wanting to give up their fortified holdings on 20-odd shoals and islets - particularly in the current environment. Those bases - straddling some of the world's most important shipping lanes - have long rankled with China, which occupies just a handful.
As a new year begins, the outlook for the South China Sea is ever more complex, it seems.
Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. firstname.lastname@example.org