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Thailand should help settle regional sea disputes

Publication Date : 03-10-2012

 

It may not have been a slip of the tongue when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said in New York last week that she would try a "woman's touch" to help resolve the ongoing conflict in the South China Sea. The Thai Prime Minister has a reputation for choosing the wrong word and making verbal gaffes, but this time it was unlikely.

Policy makers for Thailand's foreign affairs need to think about her phrase seriously, not just because our female prime minister said something that might raise eyebrows in the diplomatic world. Thailand, as a country, does indeed have a chance to play a significant role in conflict resolution.

It is difficult to spell out the exact meaning of the term "woman's touch" Yingluck used at the Asia Society. It could mean many things.

It could mean the PM would play a role in mediating the peace process in the South China Sea. Or it could mean that Thailand would use a woman's common sense as a diplomatic way to work on the issue. This womanly sense or nature could mean generous, soft, flexible and compromising. But this may be interpreted more clearly later if Thailand really wants to get involved.

Conflict in the South China Sea, notably between China and the Philippines and Vietnam - has not been on Thailand's foreign policy radar screen for a long time. Many policymakers in Bangkok might believe the issue is too far away from Thai interests.

However the issue is not distant anymore. The dispute in Phnom Penh that stopped Asean foreign ministers from issuing a joint communique after their meeting in July, was an alarm bell that warned members something needs to be done, otherwise the conflict will spill over into the group.

The ministerial meeting of Asean foreign ministers failed to build a consensus on the way to address specific incidents between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal - as well as China and Vietnam on an exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf.

Cambodia, as the current chair of the group, offered no smart exit. Many members expressed disappointment over the role of the chair. And that ill feeling could develop into a dispute between members and Phnom Penh for as long as the issue remains unsolved.

Leaders of Asean will gather next month in the Cambodian capital again for their summit. There remains no guarantee that such a failure will happen again during the summit. As a member of Asean, Thailand should not sit still.

Furthermore, Thailand is now a coordinator for China and Asean. Like it or not, the country needs to carry on the uphill task of helping relations run smoothly. Of course, the South China Sea may not be the only issue in relations between Asean and China. But the conflict could overshadow other facets of relations if it cannot be contained.

In a normal situation, the coordinator of the group and China could simply do routine jobs, but this time is different. The coordinator may need more ambition to play a role or to offer a smart exit in ongoing disputes. If Thailand can play a key role this time, Asean's ambition to have a code of conduct over the South China Sea with China would be more possible.

It's time for Thailand, whose international role has declined for a long time due to internal strife, to play some role to restore its status, credit and reputation by seeking resolution of conflicts in the South China Sea.

 

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