Beijing and Asean must redouble efforts to settle territorial rows
Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have already taken steps to improve bilateral ties with China, proving that dialogue trumps rhetoric
Dialogue is the most practical way to ease strained relations and it has worked between China and three members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that are contesting claims in the South China Sea. Successive visits to Beijing by the leaders of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have lowered temperatures heightened by a court ruling in The Hague and brought greater trust and understanding. Trade, infrastructure and investment agreements have been forged and pledges made on properly managing the territorial issue. It is precisely what a region torn between the rivalry of Beijing and Washington wants and needs.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, took home tens of billions of dollars in deals. Stability is essential for growth and development, so pushing economics and pledging not to inflame tensions is in the interests of the region’s people. It is, as President Xi Jinping (習近平) told Phuc during their talks, a matter of interests outweighing differences.
But China also offers advantages and a chance to balance interests. The US pivot to Asia has given an opportunity to strike defence and weapons deals to counter Beijing’s perceived assertiveness, an approach still adopted by Vietnam and some others in Asean. Najib and Duterte embraced the bilateral track during their visits, though, with the Malaysian leader agreeing to enhance naval cooperation with China after sealing a deal to buy Chinese patrol ships. Duterte won approval to allow Philippine fishermen to operate around a disputed shoal before questioning his country’s long-standing military alliance with the US. To what extent Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency changes American engagement in Asia remains uncertain.
China’s strategy to build trust is working. From better bilateral ties will come more deals that will improve the lives of ordinary people. That, in turn, will boost prospects for Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative. But a single visit does not reverse deep-rooted ties or bury the Hague tribunal’s ruling in favour of the Philippines. Najib and Duterte have spoken of a new era in relations with China, but Vietnam is resolute about its claims and proving how mixed the picture is, Indonesia, worried about incursions by Chinese fishermen into its waters, is considering joint naval patrols with Australia. Every effort has to be made by China and Asean to agree on a code of conduct for the South China Sea by a deadline of next July.