South China Sea issue tests relations between China and Asean

Simon Tay says the real test of relations between China and Asean will be whether they can solve the South China Sea issue on their own

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:16am

Clues about the character of the new Chinese leadership are emerging from its interactions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Following the Asean summit, China's new foreign minister, Wang Yi , visited the region for the first time. Ties are co-operative on many fronts but 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, with Vietnam and the Philippines the most active and vocal compared to Malaysia and Brunei. While the group remains neutral, some changes are perceptible.

Last year, then chair Cambodia refused any mention of the issue and as a result, for the first time the bloc failed to reach an agreed statement. Some feared Chinese pressure would undermine Asean unity. In contrast, the current chair, Brunei, 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 and Beijing, and then go to Manila. These special efforts - in just six weeks - ensure attention at the highest level. It is to the chair's credit that the latest Asean summit did not repeat the Phnom Penh phenomenon.

The six-point principles for resolving maritime issues were re-emphasised as a basis to jump-start negotiations on a binding code of conduct. Nothing especially new, but enough to put the process back on track and shift the onus to Beijing.

Enter Wang to visit the region. Critics point out that he skirted the claimants, except Brunei. Yet this was to be expected for a new minister, who has a deserved reputation for skill and smoothness. Tensions have, after all, risen in recent months.

The choice of countries for Wang's visit was deliberate. Indonesia and Singapore have no claims on the islets but have been active after the failure in Cambodia. Brunei has claims that overlap with China's but has been restrained on the issue. It remains to be seen how engaged Thailand will be.

These four can serve as a core of Asean on the issue. To do so, they must aim to ensure the group'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.

A critical step is for officials to start work on the promised code of conduct. Joint development - which China has called for - should also be considered, provided a suitable area can be identified and agreed on. For its part, Beijing must not abuse the process and string out discussions indefinitely.

A reality check will come at next month's Asean Regional Forum, which will bring together the foreign ministers from across the region. Discussion of the South China Sea issue beyond Asean is inevitable; it was at the forum meeting almost three years ago that then US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton intervened on this issue, to China's chagrin.

Whether Asean and China can keep the issue among themselves will test the temperament of Beijing's leaders and also Asean's mettle. The US and others with stakes in managing peace and stability across the region will judge the situation accordingly.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and an associate professor of international law at the National University of Singapore