Rising signs for a regional S.C Sea solution

By Wu Zhenglong Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/28 23:28:41

On November 13, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, as current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), issued the Chairman's Statement of the ASEAN Summit, in which no reference to concerns over China's activities in the South China Sea was made. Instead, there were words stressing the improvement of relations between ASEAN and China, marking a difference in wording compared to previous statements.

The Chairman's Statement conforms to the current situation in the South China Sea, which has seen an easing of tensions in recent times. Stakeholders involved are now going back to the negotiating table to solve disputes and mending bilateral relationships. This is evident through China and the ASEAN member state's declaration of the commencement of a new set of consultations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

The current state of the South China Sea territorial dispute is encouraging, and clearly shows a common willingness among regional countries to manage their differences so as to guarantee regional peace and stability via negotiations. It also reveals that regional nations have the confidence, wisdom and ability to deal with the South China Sea issue in a peaceful, friendly and cooperative nature.

Yet getting to this point was not easy. In July 2010, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a speech in Hanoi advocating that the US would move its strategic focus to the East, essentially separating China from claimant states in the area. It misled some countries into thinking that they could leverage US power and countries outside the region to internationalize the South China Sea issue and force China to accept their claiming stance. The intensity of situation in the region then suddenly increased and conflicts escalated.

At this time, China maintained its long-term strategy and stood up when necessary. After various discussions, the issue and negotiations gradually got back on track.

How the issue can be stabilized concerns the following aspects.

First, the conflicts should not be seen as an obstacle for nations focusing on developing their economies. As developing countries, the most imperative mission for China and ASEAN states is to push for economic development. When Duterte became the president of the Philippines, he adjusted the nation's strategy, going from confronting China over the South China Sea issue to promoting cooperation between China and the Philippines.

Second, bilateral negotiation is the only sustainable way to solve bilateral disputes. In recent years, it has been proven that inviting external powers into the regional affairs is often not beneficial, and rather, can further complicate the conflict. Now, with Donald Trump in power, he pushed the "America First" doctrine and withdrew from many multilateral institutions and organizations, which has weakened US' reputation and leadership and increased doubts about US' commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. Claimant states have realized that the US' position and interests in the dispute is unreliable. To solve the South China Sea disputes, regional countries involved must themselves find a solution.

Third, it will take time to address the South China Sea issue. Territorial disputes are deeply tied to countries' core interests and thus it takes time to settle disputes of a sensitive nature such as these. A pragmatic approach lies in building a crisis management mechanism to guarantee peace and stability in the South China Sea region, as well as enhancing trust, avoiding conflicts and making regional rules and order recognized by all. In order to do so, China and ASEAN should step up consultations on the COC.

Last, China insists on a friendly, trustful and comprehensive strategy toward the dispute. It has led the way in bringing forth nagging disputes between countries to the negotiating table. China undertakes high-level exchanges, and is pushing forward its Belt and Road initiative to greater connect and develop the region as a whole. The twists and turns in the South China Sea issue have actually amounted to a strengthening of the understanding that the foundation of stability and peace in the region lies in a regional solution. A few days ago, when Trump visited Vietnam, he delivered an offer of the US to help in the territorial dispute, yet was not received warmly. However, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam, a consensus was reached on properly handling the South China Sea issue.

China and ASEAN member states, especially claimant states, have matured and now are more pragmatic in their approach and relationships.

The author is a former Chinese diplomat.


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