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Asean, China look for common grounds

Publication Date : 14-04-2014

 

Next Monday the senior officials from Asean and China will be meeting in Pattaya after they met last September at Suzhou, China where they kicked off official consultation on the process of formulating code of conducts (CoC) for the South China Sea. It was a turning point as China expressed the readiness to engage Asean on this sensitive issue. Last month, their officials at the working level met in Singapore to review the progress and prepare recommendations for the Pattaya meeting, which will also meet back-to-back to discuss overall Asean-China relations.

During the past six months, there have been critical developments in Asean-China relations including the declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone, the Hainan Island's new fishing regulations and the rising tension in the South China Sea involving major claimants—China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.

In addition, major powers, especially the US and China, have also issued strong warnings about the potential dangers of the ongoing disputes. Ahead of the US President Barack Obama's visit to Asia later this month, Washington has repeatedly called for the Asean unity and faster delivery of a code of conducts for South China Sea. Last week at Boao, Hainan Island, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang once again reiterated that Beijing is committed to peaceful development but it will respond firmly to provocations in the disputed maritime zones.

In the past, these events could immediately hamper the Asean-China dialogue and consultation process. However, granted the new dynamics within Asean and broader Asia including the US-China relations, the conflicting parties in the South China Sea deem it necessary to stay on course with the CoC process.

This year, Asean and China decided to accelerate the CoC process with four more meetings—two at the working group (June-Jakarta and October-Bangkok) and two at senior official levels (Pattaya and Bangkok). The coordinating country, Thailand is hopeful that the remaining 14 months of its tenure could yield some substantive progress on the CoC process.

Albeit the political turmoil at home, Thailand is keen to demonstrate its leadership in pushing forward the negotiation of code of conduct. During the previous coordinating countries, only a few meetings were convened. Both sides took nearly a decade to agree on the guidelines to implement the declaration of various joint cooperation in the South China Sea signed in 2002. At this juncture, the coordinating country feels the time is right for accelerating the Asean-China engagement.

In previous senior official meeting in China, they agreed on a series of action plans including establishment of hotline, information exchange and data bank as well as search and rescue as parts of the proposed joint cooperation. Recently, China has already offered to fund all the expenses in setting up the hotline communications between China and Asean. Asean has been yet respond to the offer.

To facilitate the CoC process, Thailand has circulated a list of commonalities found in the Asean-China relations enshrined in numerous documents signed since 1992 as well as their diplomatic practices. In return, China has also circulated a concept paper on common positions that both sides shared. From China's perspective, these qualities reinforced the need for step-by-step approach in the Asean-China scheme of things.

In future consultations, Asean and China are expected to discuss six key common elements that could form the gist of CoC. Each side agreed to propose lists of eminent persons who will form an expert group to assist their senior officials on technical aspects. They will work together from the beginning—a far cry from the past when Asean prepared the first draft.

The first three elements comprise ways to strengthen their political trust to ensure fruitful consultations, their commitments to purposes and principles of UN Charter, UN Laws of the Sea, Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and other relevant documents. Another important principle is the mutual respect for each other's independence and sovereignty.

The remaining three elements involve upholding the spirit and principles of Document of Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea Dispute, including fully and effectively implementation of freedom of navigation. In addition, Asean and China have discussed many joint projects and activities in the South China Sea that need to be carried out. In this area, Thailand is the leading nation. The 90-million baht proposal to examine tuna stocks in the South China Sea has been approved by China. It will be the first project to be fund by China, which allocated a US$500-million maritime fund.

Finally, the most important element is the commitment to resolve territorial and juridical disputes by peaceful means.

It remains to be seen how these future meetings and common elements will play out eventually in bringing peace and stability to the turbulent South China Sea. Asean and China have come a long way in their discussion over the South China Sea disputes. One thing is clear they can no longer afford to be held captives of the quagmire that severely undermining their effort for community-building in East Asia.

 

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