By Colin Lovett – Tensions over the South China Sea are the backdrop of this week’s meeting between foreign ministers from China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The issue is expected to be a major focus of the agenda in Beijing. It is also high on the agenda in Brunei, where regional defense chiefs are meeting with their counterparts from China, the U.S. and other countries. But a breakthrough is seen as unlikely.
The ASEAN countries are seeking a quick resolution to negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and multilateral talks on territorial disputes in and around the sea. But both positions are at odds with a Chinese government that has been increasingly aggressive in promoting its maritime territorial claims.
After a half day retreat in Thailand this month, ASEAN foreign ministers said they are prepared to speak with one voice on the issue of quickly negotiating a long sought Code of Conduct, a binding agreement that would regulate maritime behavior and that could set the stage for talks to resolve territorial disputes.
But former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Clad said the pronouncement by ASEAN is not likely to have any effect.
“We’ll firstly, I don’t believe ASEAN does speak with one voice,” Clad said. “For starters, the Cambodians, where the heads of state meeting was held not so long ago, have made every effort to oblige its friends in Beijing. So the idea that there will be one voice from ASEAN regarding the South China Sea is inherently and empirically improbable. That said, it’s useful to go in with what is essentially kind of a bluff. But I don’t think it will have any measurable outcome in the talks with the Chinese, who will kick the can down the road, which is what they always do.”
Cambodia’s close relationship with China came under close scrutiny last year when it hosted a major ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh. For the first time in history, the ministers were unable to agree on the language of a joint declaration, a signal of ongoing controversy among the ministers.
Last week, Cambodia’s foreign minister held talks with his Chinese counterpart and urged closer ties between ASEAN and Beijing.
But independent analyst Lao Monghay told VOA it is part of the same old game plan for Beijing.
“The strategy of China is to divide ASEAN,” he said. “It succeeded in the summit in Cambodia last year.”
China has said it is in no rush to negotiate a Code of Conduct. It is also opposed to a multilateral solution to its territorial disputes, preferring to hold only bilateral talks with its ASEAN neighbors.
The United States, which says it does not take sides in the territorial disputes, has increased its diplomatic engagement on the issue.
David Shear, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, told VOA a Code of Conduct would be an important step for the region.
“We are engaged in a very strong dialogue with the Vietnamese on this subject and we talk about a variety of things, including what is going on on the water,” Shear noted, “including what is going on with regards to possible negotiations with the Chinese on a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which we believe it is implemented, negotiated and implemented, it would greatly reduce tensions on the water, on the South China Sea.”
The United States and Vietnam still have major disagreements on some issues, including human rights. But Alexander Vuving of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies believes a U.S.-Vietnamese strategic partnership is definitely possible in the long-run because of China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, and the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia.
“In the near future, there are still many obstacles in Viet-US relationship, but in the long run, this bilateral relationship will be much closer given the fact that China is becoming more and more determined in their sovereignty claims in the South China Sea which is in direct conflict with Vietnam’s interests in the disputed sea,” Vuving said. “In the long run, a Viet-US strategic partnership is something definitely possible amid the growing corruption of the current dictatorship government in Vietnam, China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea, and US’s Asia pivot”.
The United States is also talking with the Philippines, including negotiations to increase the rotational presence of U.S. military forces and equipment. On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a major increase in U.S. funding for military education and training programs in Southeast Asia.
James Clad said the U.S. engagement is increasing the leverage of ASEAN countries.
“I think the thing to understand is that with this administration, the great advantage, the great gain in diplomacy, Secretary Gates, former Defense Secretary and [former] Secretary of State Clinton were in Hanoi in 2010 and they indicated that the American position was that this had to be resolved multilaterally,” Clad said. “Which was a significant gain for ASEAN leverage. The Chinese didn’t like it then and they don’t like it now. Like all big powers dealing with smaller powers, they prefer to have things done bilaterally [because] it gives them more leverage.”
But Su Xiaohui, from the Chinese Institute of International Studies, said China finds the idea of multilateral negotiations unacceptable.
“Basically, the Philippines believes it is in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis China on South China Sea negotiations and China’s development will lead to weakening of the Philippines’ position, so they do not want to conduct bilateral negotiations with China,” Su said. “The Philippines is attempting to use American support to increase its leverage against China. The Philippines wants to make COA a multilateral agreement with which to settle the South China Sea territorial dispute. The Philippines believes it will enjoy an advantageous position in multilateral talks. China cannot accept this because we don’t consider the South China Sea a multilateral issue. Although it involves six parties – Taiwan and five countries – it is in fact a bilateral issue between two countries over some reefs and disputed waters; it is not an issue to be negotiated multilaterally.”
The South China Sea is believed to hold massive oil and natural gas reserves. It is the site of territorial disputes between China and nations such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. Japan and China are involved in a separate dispute in the East China Sea.
Fred Wang contributed to this report from Beijing, Tra Mi contributed from Washington and Kong Sothanarith contributed from Phnom Penh. This report was produced in collaboration with the Mandarin, Vietnamese and Khmer services.