Travel guides describe it as “a place on the edge”. Ironically, participants at a meeting between China and Southeast Asian nations last week in Manzhouli were also on edge. And yet the dusty little city could not have been more appropriate.
Sitting at the edge of China, Russia and Mongolia, it is about as far away as one can get from the choppy waters of the South China Sea that have bedevilled relations between China and the regional grouping of Asean.
As Liu Zhenmin (劉振民), China’s vice-minister for foreign affairs who hosted the session, said: “It’s very important that we are coming to a city that is far from the South China Sea … where it is not so hot that it enables us to have a cool-headed talk.”
Far from the roiling maritime disputes, Manzhouli is an inland city known for its vast grasslands that stretch to the edges of the brightly coloured Russian-style buildings in the centre. As a land port responsible for nearly 70 per cent of all trade with Russia, the streets of Manzhouli are full of shops with signs written in Russian and crawling with Russian shoppers. But Manzhouli wasn’t always as peaceful. Its surrounding borderlands used to be as tense as the South China Sea is today, until China and Russia reached a border agreement in 1991. The same spirit of negotiation, the Chinese officials were hoping, would suffuse the current talks.
“Through bilateral negotiations, China and Russia not only solved the border issues, but also achieved common prosperity through cooperation and development,” said Liu in Manzhouli. “I hope this experience can be applied to our cooperation in the South China Sea.”
The meeting in Manzhouli ended with consensus between China and Asean on guidelines for a hotline during maritime emergencies, a joint declaration on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to the South China Sea, and reiteration of a promise to finalise a draft framework for a code of conduct for the South China Sea by the middle of 2017.
These breakthroughs were in contrast to a meeting in Kunming ( 昆明 ) in April, when China’s ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) fell into disarray. Asean foreign ministers issued a statement expressing “serious concerns” over developments in the disputed waterway, only to retract it a few hours later. The episode was an embarrassment for both China and Asean and, according to observers, spilled open the lack of unity between Asean members on the South China Sea dispute.
The meeting was followed by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in July that denied China’s historical claims to most of the sea. China responded angrily, refused to recognise the case and said claimants should resolve the issue through bilateral talks.
But things have cooled a little since then. The new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, has extended an olive branch to China by offering to talk and China gained a small diplomatic victory last month when Asean foreign ministers decided to drop a reference to the South China Sea ruling in their joint communiqué after their meeting in Vientiane, Laos. Former Philippine president Fidel Ramos’ ice-breaking visit to Hong Kong this month was also sign of easing tensions between the two sides. That visit and the latest meeting in Manzhouli had led to a lowering of temperatures, analyst Shen Shishun said.
“China has shown willingness to accelerate the pace of negotiations with Asean… It has also been restrained in island building in the South China Sea,” said Shen, an e Asia-Pacific expert with Haikou College of Economics in Hainan ( 海南 ) province. “The general direction is that Asean countries have chosen to cooperate with China.”
Leaders of Asean countries are set to approve and adopt the consensus reached in Manzhouli when they gather in Vientiane next month. Duterte is likely to meet top Chinese leaders then to discuss the South China Sea disputes for the first time.
But the magic of Manzhouli can only go so far. More needs to be done before a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea can be agreed. “It would be very difficult to reach a mutually acceptable code of conduct in that time frame [before mid 2017],” said Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.