PHNOM PENH – Efforts to ease tensions in the South China Sea will dominate this week’s Asian security dialogue in Cambodia, analysts say, while the US will be at pains to stress it seeks cooperation with China.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joins the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh on Thursday, a few days after foreign ministers from across Southeast Asia open proceedings, with counterparts from China, Japan, the Koreas and Australia also set to attend.
Friction over competing claims in the South China Sea promises to be the hot button issue as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) holds talks on Monday – before opening meetings to include all 27 invited countries.
Manila is leading a push for ASEAN to unite to persuade China to accept a “code of conduct” (COC) in the sea, where tensions have flared recently with both Vietnam and the Philippines accusing Beijing of aggressive behaviour.
China has preferred an approach that would deal with the claimants individually, as it seeks to extend its writ over the resource-rich and strategically important area.
“This is make or break time for ASEAN members,” said Carl Thayer, a politics professor and Southeast Asia securities expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“They have set this month as their self-imposed deadline to come up with a draft COC. There could be progress.”
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes and believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
China recently angered Vietnam by inviting bids for exploration of oil blocks in contested waters, sparking protests in Hanoi, while Beijing and Manila are locked in a tense standoff over a disputed shoal.
At their last summit in April, ASEAN countries were divided over when to include Beijing in discussions about the draft code of conduct, leading to a “big disagreement”, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said at the time.
But the bloc is still hoping to reach an agreement with China by the end of the year, 10 years after first committing to creating a legally binding framework for resolving disputes.
“We urge progress between ASEAN nations and China on a code of the conduct for the South China Sea,” Clinton told reporters in Tokyo on Sunday, calling on Asia-Pacific nations “to resolve their disputes without coercion, without intimidation, without threats and without conflict”.
The US recently expanded military relations with the Philippines and Vietnam, and the strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing will be “the elephant in the room” this week, according to Ernie Bower of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Amid concerns that the US’s renewed focus on Asia could antagonise China ahead of a leadership transition this year, Clinton is expected “to downplay US-China friction”, Bower said.
Instead, she will “be at pains to advance US-China cooperation as a main foreign policy objective”, agreed Thayer.
With that in mind, Clinton may be less outspoken on the maritime dispute than she was at a regional summit in 2010, when she angered Beijing by saying the US had a “national interest” in open access to the South China Sea.
“Don’t look for fireworks from Secretary Clinton in Phnom Penh,” said Bower.
“Look for quiet strength, behind the scenes support for ASEAN positions… but nothing overt or muscle-heavy from the United States.”
Clinton will want to reassure Asian counterparts that the US commitment to the region is broader than simply to counter Chinese military strength, said Thayer.
Her efforts will start even before she arrives in Cambodia, with quick visits to Hanoi – to meet US and Vietnamese business representatives – and Laos, becoming the first top US diplomat to visit the communist-run country in 57 years.
ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – a grouping of nearly 600 million people from disparate economic and political systems.
The bloc has often been dismissed as a talking shop but it has assumed new strategic importance in light of Washington’s foreign policy “pivot” to Asia and the economic rise of China in recent years