Pragmatic approach lets China and ASEAN smooth over disputes

By Ei Sun oh Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-6 20:28:02

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The rich history of interaction between China and Southeast Asia dates back more than 1,000 years. In the 15th century, for example, the huge Chinese armada led by the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) famously visited Southeast Asia seven times, picking up friendships along the way.

In modern times, China's overall relationships with the 10 nations that make up the ASEAN have taken on an economic focus. But there are also a series of territorial and maritime disputes surrounding overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea between China and certain ASEAN members, such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

While these relatively low-intensity skirmishes have thus far not marred the generally cordial China-ASEAN relationship, they should nevertheless be handled with extreme caution and wisdom due to the fear of unintended escalation.

It was against these colorful backgrounds that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended a high-level forum recently in Bangkok, marking the 10th anniversary of ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership.

The forum concluded on a positive note, with China calling for an updated version of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and enhanced connectivity between the two sides.

During the original CAFTA negotiations a decade ago, the focus was understandably in addressing tariff issues relating to China's huge exports to the ASEAN market.

While this aspect of China-ASEAN trade still holds true, another equally urgent prospect also looms on the horizon: the desire by ASEAN members to tap into the huge emerging Chinese consumer.

But this humongous trade volume between China and ASEAN will incur unnecessary wastage if the logistic connectivity between the two sides is dilapidated at best.

With its technical expertise and financial resources, China should redouble its efforts in investing in and assisting some of these ASEAN countries to upgrade their communication network, facilitating more efficient carriage of goods and services between the two sides.

Nonetheless, the South China Sea disputes also popped up during the meeting. When meeting Thai officials, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi summarized China's position for resolving these disputes as a "three-pronged approach."

The first prong concerns China's stand that these disputes should be handled by direct bilateral negotiations between the disputing parties.

The second prong sees China welcoming the continual implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the gradual negotiations toward adopting a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

And the third prong will see the parties actively explore joint exploitation of the region for common benefits.

Heated rhetoric and diplomatic grandstanding notwithstanding, the doors for bilateral dealings and ensuing resolution have never really been closed, as most ASEAN countries see the disputes as only a facet of their relationship with China.

But bilateral dealings can take on many different forms. Direct negotiations and informal consultations can proceed bilaterally, but so can arbitrations and adjudications between two disputing parties.

China must take cognizance that at least for certain ASEAN disputants and indeed many countries in the world, the submission of bilateral territorial or maritime disputes to arbitration or adjudication is a preferred and quite common method of resolution.

These dispute resolution methods are often viewed as acquiring at least equal if not higher force of international law as with negotiations and consultations.

While China may not favor this route for dispute resolution, it should note that even during the arbitration or adjudication process, direct bilateral negotiations and consultations can still be carried out.

Indeed, more than one international dispute was first submitted for arbitration or adjudication, but was eventually settled bilaterally "out of court."

Most ASEAN members will warmly welcome China's desire for further DOC implementation, but most of all they are comforted by China's avowed participation in the negotiations leading toward a COC.

A COC without China's participation is not meaningful, and China's taking part in the drafting effort will also counterweigh the roles of some other more vocal players or major powers.

Finally, joint exploitation of the rich and vast resources of the South China Sea has been tossed around for several decades. The problem is no party has realistically taken the lead in proposing a concrete and feasible project.

China, being the major power in this region and a concerned party, should step up and take the bold initiative of expounding just such a concrete and feasible project.

A less dogmatic, more pragmatic and flexible approach to resolving the South China Sea disputes is in the best interest of both ASEAN and China, as both sides look forward to an even closer relationship in the future.

The author is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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