‘Trust’ missing piece in S.China Sea puzzle

Source:Global Times Published: 2016-6-7 20:08:01

Editor's Note:

The South China Sea issue was a heated topic at the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue, which wrapped up on Sunday in Singapore. While countries outside the region such as the US and Japan intensify their involvement in the disputes, what do Southeast Asian countries think of their involvement? What do these countries see as possible aftereffects of the upcoming South China Sea arbitration ruling? How can China's relations with some ASEAN countries, which have raised concerns over the issue, be restored? Global Times reporter Sun Xiaobo spoke with delegates from Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia at the Dialogue on these issues.

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Kung Phoak, co-founder & president of Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies

The South China Sea issue is a challenge in terms of how to resolve it, how to manage conflicts and limit intervention from outsiders, as well as how to strengthen relations between China and some ASEAN countries. I say "some" ASEAN countries because not all ASEAN countries are in the same position in terms of their relations with China.

I think the most difficult relationship for China to improve is the one with claimants. Non-claimants are generally neutral, because they aren't taking a position on the South China Sea issue. Their views are also in line with some of the policymakers and strategy thinkers in the region, allowing us to take time to resolve the South China Sea issue.

Resolving territorial disputes is time-consuming and requires numerous talks between disputed parties. For the South China Sea issue, no one is expecting it to be resolved in four or five years. So non-claimants hold a long-term view on this. Dialogue is needed between disputed parties, as well as between China and four ASEAN claimants, namely, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Regarding sovereignty, China has made its position on some islands very clear. However, there is something that is not clear. For instance, China says the nine-dash line benefits all claimants, but some countries might wonder what exactly the nine-dash line is.

I think it is important that claimants become confident and trust China as discussions about this issue continue, because otherwise, no matter what you say, the negotiations will see little change. We are now facing this problem - a lack of trust.

The upcoming arbitration ruling will strain the relations between China and the Philippines even more, and tensions will run higher in the short term. It will also complicate some of the issues. But everyone, including the Philippines, knows that the rulings of the international court are not final, and more dialogues between the disputed parties will be required. It requires time for all the parties to understand each other's interests and concerns and then arrive at a compromise. I hope after the ruling the disputed sides can sit down and talk.

No one, including China, wants to escalate tensions over the South China Sea, not to mention a clash. What is important to all countries at the moment is trade ties. Peace and stability are the foundation of development in the region. The bottom line is clear - any clashes or tensions in the region will not benefit any country.

U Khin Maung Lynn, joint secretary of Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, former Myanmar diplomat

Naturally I think the US and Japan also want more trade with Southeast Asia, that's why they have more investment and interest in Southeast Asian countries. But militarily Myanmar is very neutral and independent and we are not part of any military alliance. We are very careful to stay out of military alliances against any other country and we only work with ASEAN members.

ASEAN also needs to work for peace and stability in the region. I suppose there will be more economic interest in the region, but no one wants to fight since it benefits no country. The only tensions now are over the South China Sea, not between Southeast Asian countries. We should pay more attention to economic development and prosperity rather than confronting each other, so China doesn't need to be too concerned about the US and Japan in regional affairs.

Nobody can tell about the ruling right now. It's still too early to say. The possible effects depend on what the ruling is and how countries concerned react to it. But we don't want to see more tensions.

Whatever the result is, there should be more constraint and restraint in the area, not escalation of tensions. We want peaceful negotiations and settlement. Confronting any country is not useful.

To improve its relations with Southeast Asian countries, China needs to use more soft power to help Southeast Asian people in areas such as education, culture and infrastructure. There are some complaints that China's interest rates are too high compared with Japan's. I think China should consider this and take on more people-centric projects to win local hearts.

If we can make all the countries in the South China Sea move toward cooperation, it could be better. But it's not so easy. Now everyone is waiting for the ruling. In the long term, cooperation is the only way to achieve peace in the region. China needs to work together with other countries.

In terms of the public opinion in Myanmar, China's image has been impaired, as a lot of Chinese companies haven't taken much responsibility for local people in past years.

And due to problems along the border, such as human and drug trafficking, as well as illegal logging, mining and drug sales, people have negative views about China. But if China can address these problems, public opinion will certainly improve.

We need understanding and sincere support from the Chinese government to have peace along the border. China is very important for achieving peace within Myanmar. If China can support us, our whole country would be grateful.

Ei Sun Oh, senior fellow of Malaysia program, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

With regard to the intensifying presence of countries like the US and Japan in the South China Sea, the majority of the five "original" ASEAN countries, namely the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, have traditionally considered the US to be a natural ally and a force for security assurance in the region, and therefore do not object to US security presence in the region.

Japan has traditionally not played a security role in the region, although economically it has contributed tremendously to Southeast Asia's development. So we will view Japan's security presence more cautiously.

I think the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration results, as with many other international tribunal's results, will be a mixed one.

Some parts will be favorable to the Philippines, some parts will not favor it, and other parts will be determined in the future.

I frankly do not think the results will realistically have much impact on the South China Sea situation, as all parties will continue to more or less insist upon their various positions.

China should revert to its previous positions of emphasis on enhancing economic cooperation with Southeast Asian countries and setting aside overemphasis of rights in the South China Sea.

I think "setting aside disputes and jointly developing" could begin with national petroleum companies of the countries concerned in joint explorations of the South China Sea for oil and gas.

For example, Malaysia's Petronas and China's Sinopec could work together.

Posted in: Viewpoint, South China Sea Focus

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