Trip aims at soothing concerns

Foreign minister's Southeast Asian visit may have helped improve understanding over claims, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2012, 7:50pm

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's recently concluded Southeast Asian trip could help allay concerns among China's neighbours about its growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, analysts said, but it did not make China's position stronger in territorial stand-offs with members of Asean.

Wrapping up the five-day trip yesterday, Yang said it could improve ties between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as the international and regional situation got more complicated.

His itinerary illustrated China's desire for more influence over Asean. His first stop was Indonesia, followed by Malaysia and Brunei, but he left out the Philippines and Vietnam, the two Southeast Asian nations most critical of Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, triggering concerns that China was trying to divide the 10-nation bloc in an attempt to exert more influence.

Yang repeatedly told Southeast Asian leaders that China was willing to work with Asean to implement the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. In a joint statement issued by China and Indonesia after his visit, both countries vowed to implement the declaration and enhance mutual trust in order to maintain stability in the disputed waters.

"Indonesia is the biggest country in the Asean group, and it is not a claimant state in the South China Sea," said Du Jifeng , a Southeast Asia affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "China apparently wants to co-operate with Indonesia to tackle the disputes, or prevent further escalation."

However, in what is being seen as a call for Asean to present a more united front against China, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman urged Southeast Asian nations to settle their overlapping claims in the disputed waters before bringing them up with Beijing.

Du said Southeast Asian nations had dilemmas, and might be reluctant to side with China. "It is not easy for the Asean members to co-ordinate among themselves and decide whether to give up the Philippines and Vietnam for China," he said.

Asean members have been in discord in recent months over the territorial disputes, with an Asean summit last month failing to issue a joint declaration.

"To a certain extent, Yang's trip can help other nations better understand more about China's stance on the dispute," said Zhang Mingliang , a South China Sea affairs expert at Jinan University.