South China Sea row calls for all in­volved to pad­dle in uni­son

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Woe­fully, a self-de­feat­ing mes­sage was sent to China when the re­cent ASEAN For­eign Min­is­ters Meet­ing proved yet again how di­vi­sive the South China Sea is­sue is among mem­bers. That was ev­i­dent from the eleventh-hour ef­fort to pro­duce a joint state­ment. Cou­pled with the Cam­bo­dia fi­asco — when the group failed to is­sue a joint com­mu­nique three years ago — it hardly projects the united re­solve that ASEAN needs to ne­go­ti­ate a bind­ing Code of Con­duct with China. The Asian gi­ant has been drag­ging its feet on it for 13 years al­ready, since the sign­ing of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Con­duct of Par­ties in the South China Sea. It is a wait­ing game to see how the group­ing copes with the over­lap­ping claims and di­ver­gent ap­proaches of var­i­ous mem­bers, and to al­low China time to gain a foothold in dis­puted wa­ters.

From China’s per­spec­tive, it is merely catch­ing up with other dis­putants who have al­ready en­gaged in is­land build­ing in the Spratly ar­chi­pel­ago, although small in scale com­pared to China’s ef­fort. Nor is China’s airstrip the only one in the Spratlys, although none of the oth­ers can match China’s ca­pac­ity to land all planes, in­clud­ing hefty freight air­craft and fighter jets.

Against this re­al­ity, ASEAN’s claim to neutrality and ob­jec­tiv­ity as a non-dis­putant would have been un­der­mined had it taken a strong po­si­tion on a mora­to­rium on ac­tiv­i­ties in or­der to “fi­nally stand up” to China, as the Philip­pines ad­vo­cated. What­ever the mer­its of the United States’ “three halts” pro­posal re­lat­ing to recla­ma­tion, con­struc­tion and mil­i­ta­riza­tion, it was diplo­mat­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent for the group­ing to fo­cus on the avoid­ance of any ac­tions that raise ten­sions and erode trust.

Re­gional con­fi­dence un­der­pins all other ini­tia­tives be­tween ASEAN and China, as Sin­ga­pore is all too aware of in its role as coun­try co­or­di­na­tor for the re­la­tion­ship. Of im­me­di­ate im­por­tance are the con­crete steps needed to get the Code of Con­duct talks un­der way, now that China has agreed to take this for­ward. Also on the cards is the up­grad­ing of the ASEAN-China free trade agree­ment by next year. That could boost ASEAN trade with China (its largest trad­ing part­ner) from US$443 bil­lion in 2013 to US$1 tril­lion by 2020.

From a re­gional per­spec­tive, there­fore, there is ev­ery rea­son for all to keep cer­tain fun­da­men­tals con­stantly in sight — mar­itime trade routes must re­main open and se­cure, force­ful mis­steps must be avoided so the South China Sea doesn’t turn into a dan­ger­ous flash­point of global con­cern, and prag­matic ne­go­ti­a­tion must be the sole means of dis­pute res­o­lu­tion. As for China’s point that non-re­gional states should keep out of the con­tested wa­ters, there’s no deny­ing the strate­gic coun­ter­bal­anc­ing role of the United States and its his­tor­i­cal links with the re­gion. A se­cu­rity di­a­logue that in­volves all stake­hold­ers is more likely to yield bet­ter out­comes. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished by The Straits Times on Aug. 8.

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