Woefully, a self-defeating message was sent to China when the recent Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting proved yet again how divisive the South China Sea issue is among members. That was evident from the eleventh-hour effort to produce a joint statement. Coupled with the Cambodia fiasco – when the group failed to issue a joint communique three years ago – it hardly projects the united resolve that Asean needs to negotiate a binding Code of Conduct with China. The Asian giant has been dragging its feet on it for 13 years already, since the signing of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It is a waiting game to see how the grouping copes with the overlapping claims and divergent approaches of various members, and to allow China time to gain a foothold in disputed waters.
From China’s perspective, it is merely catching up with other disputants who have already engaged in island building in the Spratly archipelago, although small in scale compared to China’s effort. Nor is China’s airstrip the only one in the Spratlys, although none of the others can match China’s capacity to land all planes, including hefty freight aircraft and fighter jets.
Against this reality, Asean’s claim to neutrality and objectivity as a non-disputant would have been undermined had it taken a strong position on a moratorium on activities in order to “finally stand up” to China, as the Philippines advocated. Whatever the merits of the United States’ “three halts” proposal relating to reclamation, construction and militarisation, it was diplomatically expedient for the grouping to focus on the avoidance of any actions that raise tensions and erode trust.
Regional confidence underpins all other initiatives between Asean and China, as Singapore is all too aware of in its role as country coordinator for the relationship. Of immediate importance are the concrete steps needed to get the Code of Conduct talks under way, now that China has agreed to take this forward. Also on the cards is the upgrading of the Asean-China free trade agreement by next year. That could boost Asean trade with China (its largest trading partner) from US$443 billion in 2013 to US$1 trillion by 2020.
From a regional perspective, therefore, there is every reason for all to keep certain fundamentals constantly in sight – maritime trade routes must remain open and secure, forceful missteps must be avoided so the South China Sea doesn’t turn into a dangerous flashpoint of global concern, and pragmatic negotiation must be the sole means of dispute resolution. As for China’s point that non-regional states should keep out of the contested waters, there’s no denying the strategic counterbalancing role of the United States and its historical links with the region. A security dialogue that involves all stakeholders is more likely to yield better outcomes.