Progress on South China Sea creates room for Asean to focus on key issues

Simon Tay and Jonathan Tan say recent progress on the South China Sea dispute has created some breathing space for Asean to now focus meandering regional discussion on key issues

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 6:16am

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations draws both admirers and detractors, and the recent ministerial meeting hosted by Brunei provided ample evidence for each view. While there were signs of positive movement, thorny obstacles lie on the path ahead. This is especially so on the South China Sea disputes discussed at the Asean Regional Forum.

The issue is a potential landmine, not just between the four Asean member states that have overlapping claims with China. Overall unity can be affected, as witnessed at last year's meeting in Cambodia, where agreement on a statement could not be reached due to sensitivities.

In the months since, the situation has not improved and, indeed, seems worse. At this month's meeting, the Philippines released a statement of its concerns that the South China Sea is being increasingly militarised.

China's new foreign minister, Wang Yi , attending his first Asean Regional Forum, rebutted the accusations and made suggestions to tap the maritime security co-operation fund between Asean and China for co-operation on areas like navigation safety and biodiversity.

Brunei, as the grouping's chair, has worked hard to calm things, and it is a notable step forward that consultations on a code of conduct will proceed. Senior officials are due to meet in September. They should commence to outline principles and practical measures.

But there are already cautionary notes. The upcoming meeting is termed a "consultation", and not a "negotiation". An "eminent persons and experts group" will also be convened - which sounds helpful but might be a distraction. It remains to be seen whether the official process will move speedily, or degenerate into a diplomatic quagmire.

What the Brunei meeting gives is not a solution but breathing space. Moreover, the South China Sea issue should not be the sole measure of Asean's progress. There is a wider agenda of community building and economic integration, as well as the effort to be a central player in the Asia-Pacific region. Here are three approaches that Asean should consider, on top of the code of conduct.

First, contextualise China-Asean co-operation. Wang seems to be making efforts to manage relations more smoothly and, if so, Asean should reciprocate. Thailand must step up in its role as Asean's designated co-ordinator and is well placed to do so - with an American alliance on one hand, and economic interests with China on the other.

Reciting a laundry list of projects will not deliver the aim for strategic discussion among leaders

One Thai government initiative is to host a high-level but informal dialogue with Asean and Chinese officials and think tanks early next month. This can reinforce the overall and often positive framework of co-operation.

Secondly, engage on wider strategic issues facing the Asia-Pacific. Asean must seize opportunities at two summits that will come back to back in October - the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, hosted by Indonesia, and its own East Asia Summit, hosted by Brunei. While Apec is bigger, the latter bears special attention.

First conceived in 2005, the East Asia Summit has expanded to bring in the American and Russian leaders and its agenda has proliferated. Topics range from energy and environment, disaster management, health and regional economic integration to maritime security, food, energy security and biodiversity.

Each issue may be of interest but reciting a laundry list of miscellaneous projects will not deliver the overarching aim for strategic discussion among leaders. Asean would do well to prune the agenda to facilitate forward-looking discussions that add to strategic trust.

The East Asia Summit should not encumber the leaders with too much minutiae but aim high, like a G8 for the Asia-Pacific. It can also minimise the danger that maritime issues could spark fractious and divisive diatribes.

In this context, the third step Asean could consider is to guide summit discussion on two broader themes. One would be around energy security and the environment. This is an issue that concerns all East Asia Summit countries, especially the host Brunei. Energy also underpins the disputes over territories, which are thought to prospectively hold vast resources. Energy security need not, moreover, be a zero-sum game. There are examples of co-operation and joint development to tap energy resources in disputed areas, like that between Thailand and Malaysia.

The second would be about trade agreements and economic integration. The American-led Trans-Pacific Partnership is reaching a critical milestone, even as the Asean-centred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership gears up. The former does not currently include China and all of Asean, while the later excludes the US. If these are not to be inconsistent or clash, a broad and strategic understanding of the two initiatives should be exchanged.

The South China Sea has seized the headlines and it is essential that the official consultations show visible progress. But other efforts must be made for peace in the region. Only then can the breathing space created by the Brunei ministerial meeting be converted from a temporary respite into a lasting legacy.

Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. Jonathan Tan is a deputy director and fellow at the SIIA