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Quiet diplomacy the way to go
Publication Date : 03-06-2014
For the first time in history, Asean foreign ministers ended a meeting in Cambodia without issuing the customary joint communique. There had been disagreement over the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea.
That failure became headline news two years ago, with fingers pointed towards several countries, including host country Cambodia.
The Philippines was reported to have lambasted the failure at the end of the talks, saying “it deplores the non-issuance of a joint communique ... which is unprecedented in Asean’s 45-year existence”.
Manila had then insisted that Asean raise the issue of an armed standoff with China over a rocky outcrop known as the Scarborough Shoal, but Cambodia – a Beijing ally and chair of the meeting – resisted.
The South China Sea territorial claims have for more than a decade threatened to be the next flashpoint in South-East Asia.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei contest parts of the resource-rich South China Sea area with China.
At last month’s Asean summit in Myanmar, Vietnam indicated to other members that the issue would be raised at the meeting. Hanoi protested loudly after China moved an oil drilling rig into waters also claimed by Vietnam.
And for the first time since the Cambodia meeting, Asean foreign ministers issued a statement in Naypyidaw, expressing “serious concerns” over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea.
An official said Vietnam was “needled” into coming out with a standalone statement on the disputed area.
The South China Sea is still a delicate and sensitive issue especially when it involves the world’s second biggest economy.
While the other two claimant countries have shown their anger publicly over Chinese intrusion into their territory, Malaysia has quietly engaged Chinese leaders on the territorial dispute.
“It has always been quiet diplomacy (for Malaysia). Our position has always been a principled position. We are not confrontational, that is our approach towards China,” said a Malaysian official.
China, for Malaysia, is an important trade partner with volume recorded at US$106 billion last year.
A Malaysian diplomat said that Malaysia was just being practical.
“We try to resolve it at the highest level, especially when the leaders meet each other. China has high regard for our position and we don’t simply make public statements.”
Malaysia’s approach is simple – peace and stability in the region come first.
“When peace and stability are the underpinning concerns, there will economic and business results.
“Whatever we can do to upgrade and enhance our relations with China, we should continue to do,” said the official.
“That goes for Asean too. The deeper the economic integration between Asean and China, the better it would be in finding a political solution.”
A foreign policy observer agreed that Kuala Lumpur is on the right track.
“However, if quiet diplomacy means making a secret bilateral deal with China, then it is highly dangerous and can cause Malaysia to pay a high price in the end.
“Malaysia should not enter into any secret deal with China because this will break up Asean – at least with regard to the South China Sea issue.
“A break-up in Asean solidarity is exactly what China wants. If each Asean claimant country deals separately and bilaterally with China, Beijing can squeeze them one by one.
“If this happens, I shudder to think about the future peace and security scenario in South-East Asia. With countries taking sides with either the United States or China, it will be a return to the Cold War years!” he said.
It must be emphasised, however, that Asean’s relations with China are not dominated by just one issue.
China has been supportive of Asean community-building and cooperation covers many other areas too.
The more important issue is how to keep Asean relevant and strong as a regional organisation.
The South China Sea dispute can make or break Asean’s future.
There is probably nothing that can split Asean from within. The real danger will be outside elements that can threaten Asean unity.
The South China Sea is a critical issue which Asean cannot afford to abandon – and it is not going away any time soon.