SOUTH CHINA SEA
Challenges lie ahead for Thailand to show the Association of Southeast Asian Nations it can help resolve the South China Sea dispute and ensure it does not disrupt regional stability.
Southeast Asian nations have witnessed a disconcerting rise in tensions over the Spratly and Paracel Islands with China. Thailand will take over as Asean’s coordinator with China and the dispute will be its biggest challenge.
Thailand will be given the task of being Asean’s coordinator with China for three years when it takes over the position from Vietnam on July 25.
The priority is clear: Thailand must work with Beijing and convince it to agree to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
Whether or not the code of conduct will be implemented over the next three years remains to be seen.
As China coordinator, Thailand must at least help build confidence among Asean members and dialogue partners, foster trust among the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute to ease tension in the area and work closely with China to show outsiders, including the United States, that Asean can manage the conflict on its own.
Tensions over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea have increased over the last several months between the Philippines and China, and between Vietnam and China.
One conflict, which has lasted for months, involves a standoff between lightly armed Chinese and Philippine vessels at the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines. Another dispute centres on a law enacted in Vietnam that claims sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, which China also claims.
In addition to the Philippines and Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are also claimants. China and Taiwan also claim part or all of the area.
In 2002, Beijing and Asean signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The document is non-binding and covers mostly soft issues such as maritime scientific research and environmental protection.
Asean wants China to sign the South China Sea Code of Conduct to set the rules for all parties concerned to operate in the disputed area and ease tensions in the area. The thrust of the code is to use peaceful means to settle problems.
Thailand must be neutral and act as a mediator to calm the stakeholders. This became especially true after the Asean foreign ministers ended their meeting in Phnom Penh on Friday with no unified position on common language for a joint communique on the issue. China successfully lobbied the host Cambodia, which is chair of Asean and a close ally of Beijing, to block some language from the document. That was seen as the reason the ministers failed for the first time in 45 years to issue a joint communique.
Permanent Secretary for foreign affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow said China should accept the reality that working behind the scenes like that will be counterproductive. China should realise that the 10-member grouping can help China to balance power in the region with the US, the official added.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was also disheartened by the stalemate. “It’s very, very disappointing that at this 11th hour, Asean is not able to rally around certain common language on the South China Sea. We’ve gone through so many problems in the past, but we’ve never failed to speak as one,” he said.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Asean’s maturity when she raised the issue during the East Asia Summit meeting on Thursday.
“I think it is a sign of Asean’s maturity that they are wrestling with some very hard issues here. They’re not ducking them; they are walking right into them. And I have worked in many multilateral settings, and it is not at all unusual for much more mature organisations to be working on and discussing and even arguing about certain matters past the deadlines in order to try to see if there’s a way forward,” Mrs Clinton said.
She said it was not up to the US or China, but rather the Asean members themselves to show a united front.
However, during the next three years, Thailand will face a tough task in trying to bring China and Asean back to the negotiating table. It is unlikely that Asean and China will discuss the South China Sea Code of Conduct in September as earlier planned as Beijing has said it would give serious consideration to when the time is right.
Although it might take time to let the claimants calm down about the issue, Bangkok prefers to let them resolve their individual conflicts bilaterally, an approach which is in line with China’s position. Having experience in using the Asean mechanism to solve the Thai-Cambodian border conflict over the Preah Vihear temple, Bangkok wants to do the same with the South China Sea. Thailand does not want other countries to intervene in the problem as it believes bilateral conflicts can be best resolved between the claimant nations. But first, the countries must show self-restraint and opt for negotiations over the use of force.
Thanida Tansubhapol reports on regional affairs for the Bangkok Post.
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