Experts tackle ‘Asean way’ in resolving sea dispute
Experts from the Southeast Asian region on Thursday called for the “Asean way” of making a consensus based on common interests to resolve the increasing tension in the South China Sea.
Three experts on Asean affairs made the statement as Asean and China foreign ministers agreed on endorsing the “Framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” during a ministerial meeting in Manila.
In an Asean forum at Sofitel Manila Thursday, Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Regional Director for the German-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, said the endorsement of the framework for a code of conduct in the disputed waters came amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s cozying up to China to ease the strained relations that was caused by the previous administration’s maritime dispute with China.
Vatikiotis said the foreign ministers’ endorsement came amid a “change of policy of the Philippine government” toward the arbitration ruling that favored the Philippines and invalidated China’s nine-dash line claiming almost all the West Philippine Sea.
Vatikiotis cited President Duterte’s efforts toward defusing the strained relations with China that paved the way for the ministers’ endorsement of the framework for a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
“Had President Duterte decided to press the arbitral ruling, I don’t think we’d have a COC,” Vatikiotis said.
Vatikiotis noted however the criticisms that the framework is “thin” and a mere “table of contents,” but at least China is cooperating.
“This is a quid pro quo. For the de-escalation, in exchange for a not satisfactory framework for many people – but nonetheless, a framework,” Vatikiotis said.
“Yes, it lacks legally binding aspect, it’s very thin, but it does include importance of confidence and trust building, which opens the way for protocols for codes or principles that could determine interactions at sea, for both navy and maritime law enforcement. That is significant and will help reduce tension,” he added.
Dr. Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a former journalist and now the Asean Secretariat in the political and security field, said a more “conducive” way to resolve the conflict in the region is not to let the tension between the United States and China get in the way of the relationship between China and the Asean.
Chalermpalanupap said Asean is the only “potential friend” China could have, adding that both regions can mutually benefit in the relations.
“We are your potential friend. Treat us in Asean as a potential friend. If you have difficulty working with the US, that’s a matter between US and China only. Don’t mix them between China and Asean cooperation,” Chalermpalanupap said in addressing China.
“I think that would be conducive to doing more in the South China Sea,” he added.
Chalermpalanupap said the framework for the code of conduct is a “significant forward” that would allow for a peaceful resolution of disputes based on “common interests” and “common benefits.”
Philips Vermonte from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies welcomed the show of cooperation between the Asean and China “without transforming the existing difficult conflict in the South China Sea.”
Vermonte also cited the cooler ties between China and the Philippines under the Duterte administration, as opposed to the previous Aquino administration which took a more hardline stance against China’s excursion in the disputed waters.
“That’s because of what happened in the Philippines. Here, the change of government creates the example that the Philippines can have cordial relationship with China without resolving the problem in the South China Sea,” Vermonte said
Vermonte said the endorsement of the framework of the code of conduct only showed that China and Asean relations can be defined by shared interests other than the South China Sea.
“Asean and China relations should not be defined by the South China Sea problem. There are other areas of cooperation between China and the Asean that both sides can agree on,” Vermonte said.
All the experts agree that the Asean way of resolving overlapping claims over South China Sea between China and the Asean member states is defined by an optimistic outlook for consensus building based on shared interests.
Vatikiotis said the Asean “centrality” of independence and non-interference has a downside – the “virulent sovereignty” of Asean member states does not help in strengthening the institutions in place for collective security.
“There’s no point for having these mechanisms, institutions if the Asean member states themselves are too shy about involving themselves in one another’s affairs. This has always been the weakness of the Asean – the virulent sovereignty of each member state,” Vatikiotis said.
“The effective management of security today involve intervention of one form or another. That’s not going to happen under Asean under its configuration,” he added.
As the South China Sea becomes a venue for the power play between China and US, whose increasing pressure is taking weight on Asean, Vatikiotis said Asean has to use its institutions effectively, “and that means something has to give – maybe its sovereignty.”
Vatikiotis said Asean should consider crafting a framework for code of conduct among each other, and let China adjust on the framework as crafted by the Asean member states.
“Why doesn’t the Asean states themselves negotiate their own code of conduct. And we can tell China, if you want to cooperate with us, here’s the Code of Conduct,” Vatikiotis said.
Chalermpalanupap said the Asean way is not merely being “pro-Asean,” but also being “pro-peace,” especially in the South China region which is a central region within South East Asia.
“If you look at the map, South China Sea is right in the middle of the region. You can’t deny that the South China Sea is not the Asean concern. It is, and therefore we have to play an active part in bringing peace, in ensuring peaceful settlement of conflict in the South China Sea,” he said.
Vermonte said due to the Asean’s experience of failure to come up with a consensus statement on certain issues, the Asean way should be coming up with common interests and meeting halfway, instead of aborting the consensus altogether.
“Consensus as to the Asean practice should also be accompanied with consultation. Now it seems to be issue consensus failed to be achieved because one or two countries just say no,” Vermonte said.
“One or two countries need not hijack the other eight, or nine, or ten countries. Because that’s not the Asean way, in essence,” he added.
The Philippines is chair of this year’s Asean summit. With the Philippines’ cooler ties with China, the Asean chairman message this year is silent on China’s reclamation activities and militarization on the disputed waters.
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