China-ASEAN ties still face chal­lenges

China Daily (Canada) - - VIEWS -

On Sun­day, China and ASEAN mem­bers high­lighted the achieve­ments their strate­gic part­ner­ship has made over the past 15 years, and agreed to deepen bi­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to a joint com­mu­niqué of the 50th ASEAN For­eign Min­is­ters’ Meet­ing in Manila.

On the South China Sea issue, Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi and his coun­ter­parts from the ASEAN mem­ber states wel­comed the ap­proval of the frame­work for the Code of Con­duct in the South China Sea and pledged to hold fur­ther ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Dur­ing the past half a cen­tury the 10-mem­ber bloc has made no­table progress in es­tab­lish­ing re­gional mech­a­nisms and main­tain­ing unity within the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions. The ASEAN Re­gional Fo­rum, for one, is the largest multi­na­tional se­cu­rity di­a­logue in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. And the reg­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion of re­gional pow­ers, in­clud­ing the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic of Korea which of­ten keeps away from in­ter­na­tional dia­logues, means ASEAN con­tin­ues to have a big say in re­gional af­fairs de­spite fac­ing chal­lenges.

ASEAN has also man­aged to keep its mem­ber states to­gether most of the time by abid­ing by the prin­ci­ple of non-in­ter­fer­ence in other coun­tries’ in­ter­nal af­fairs. It also has stayed true to the mis­sion of build­ing a com­mu­nity of shared se­cu­rity and eco­nomic pros­per­ity in South­east Asia.

As­pir­ing to bal­ance the de­mands of all its mem­ber states with­out mak­ing any party “un­com­fort­able”, ASEAN also in­flu­ences, though in lim­ited ca­pac­ity, the se­cu­rity agen­das on East Asian and Asia-Pa­cific af­fairs. It can­not risk dent­ing the hard-earned unity within the bloc, nor can its diplo­matic de­ci­sion-mak­ing be ex­empt from in­ter­ven­tion in the face of es­ca­lat­ing strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion be­tween ma­jor pow­ers.

The just-con­cluded meet­ing in Manila sug­gests the bloc is striv­ing to par­tic­i­pate more ac­tively in non-ASEAN se­cu­rity is­sues such as the de­nu­cle­ariza­tion of the Korean Penin­sula.

On Satur­day, the ASEAN for­eign min­is­ters re­leased a state­ment ex­press­ing “grave con­cerns” over es­ca­lat­ing tensions on the Korean Penin­sula, as well as Py­ongyang test-fir­ing in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles in July and con­duct­ing a nu­clear test last year. They also urged the DPRK to ful­fill its nu­clear obli­ga­tions and abide by the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil’s res­o­lu­tions, mark­ing a turn­ing point for ASEAN’s se­cu­rity pol­icy and ASEAN-DPRK ties.

ASEAN mem­ber states have good rea­son to make ef­forts to calm the oc­ca­sion­ally rough geopo­lit­i­cal wa­ters in the South China Sea, not only for re­gional se­cu­rity but also for shared re­gional pros­per­ity. So does China.

In this re­gard, the ap­proval of the Code of Con­duct frame­work by China and ASEAN is an in­spir­ing achieve­ment that car­ries mul­ti­ple im­pli­ca­tions.

More im­por­tant, the sit­u­a­tion in the South China Sea will keep im­prov­ing, as China and ASEAN reached a con­sen­sus with­out third-party in­ter­fer­ence. Shared in­ter­ests un­der the frame­work of the 21st Cen­tury Mar­itime Silk Road (which, along with the Silk Road Eco­nomic Belt, is part of the China-pro­posed Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive) have con­vinced most ASEAN economies to let mis­judg­ments be a thing of the past and take the high road to per­ma­nent peace and pros­per­ity. The mud­dled South­east Asia pol­icy of the Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion means the United States may not be a re­li­able part­ner to ASEAN.

Chal­lenges to China-ASEAN ties can emerge from many di­rec­tions, though. A joint state­ment is­sued by for­eign min­is­ters of the US, Ja­pan and Aus­tralia on the side­lines of the Manila meet­ing called on China and the Philip­pines to re­spect last year’s “in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion rul­ing”, which re­pu­di­ated Bei­jing’s le­git­i­mate sovereign rights in the wa­ters. And cer­tain ASEAN mem­bers still seek Western in­ter­ven­tion in the hope of con­tain­ing the rise of China.

The frame­work for the Code of Con­duct, de­spite not hav­ing spe­cific pro­vi­sions and clauses as of now, is not an “ac­com­mo­da­tion of Chi­nese in­ter­ests”. In­stead, given the com­plex na­ture of the South China Sea dis­putes, it is ar­guably the best way to re­solve them through con­struc­tive in­ter­ac­tions, and fully im­ple­ment the Dec­la­ra­tion on the Con­duct of Par­ties in the South China Sea.

... the ap­proval of the Code of Con­duct frame­work by China and ASEAN is an in­spir­ing achieve­ment that car­ries mul­ti­ple im­pli­ca­tions.

The au­thor is a re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Strat­egy, Chi­nese Acad­emy of So­cial Sciences.

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