Beijing needs to consider ASEAN members’ concerns in regional affairs

By Sun Xiaobo Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/17 14:28:00

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued the award on the South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines last week. Despite the result unfavorable to China, it is unlikely to put an end to the maritime disputes in the region.

The South China Sea disputes have been turned into an issue between China and the US, and a critical regional player - the ASEAN nations - has been largely neglected. But how these nations see China's rise may contribute to the formation of a new regional order after the arbitration.

In early June, I attended the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore for the second year in a row. As in the previous year, the battle of words between China and the US over the South China Sea caught the majority of attention. Many attendants left the plenary session room to converse right after US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and China's Admiral Sun Jianguo delivered their speeches on two consecutive mornings, when dignitaries from Japan, Southeast Asian countries and Europe began making their remarks.

But the two powers should not dominate everything in the region. There are other voices that need to be heard at such an international event.

A straightforward Malaysian delegate, who is doing studies for ASEAN, expressed many concerns about China. ASEAN countries are worried about China's illegal fishing in the South China Sea. "We welcome China's rise, but we are concerned about how China uses its power," he said.

His blunt words differed from some media's reports of the amicability of ASEAN toward China, but they do have some representation in Southeast Asia. Despite his grievances about and disagreement with the way China acts, I could feel his keen hope that China will play the role of a big power fairly and provide more public goods for countries in the region to strive for common development. Actually that is the target China has been working toward, but more cooperation and coordination, such as in fishing, have to be carried out in the future.

But he doesn't speak for all the people of ASEAN nations. A former Myanmese diplomat was tactful in answering my questions about the China-Myanmar relationship and the South China Sea disputes. He repeatedly called for more cooperation between Myanmar and China and more Chinese investment, rarely making complaints. He may not have told me the whole truth since I could sense his reservations, but what's certain is how much importance Myanmar attaches to its China ties. And he emphasized the independence of his country.

These voices are somewhat unpleasant to hear, but they do tell a lot of truth. It is development that most countries in Southeast Asia prioritize and in this process they want to piggyback on China's rapid growth. ASEAN countries and China should focus on how to thrive jointly, not confronting each other. As long as ASEAN members can see tangible benefits from their relations with China, the US will have fewer chances to make waves in the region.

But in this process, perhaps China has to use more patience and tactics artfully to listen and talk to ASEAN nations, and to quell their doubts and fears. With such a brief contact with ASEAN delegates, I feel it is necessary to learn more extensively what people in ASEAN think of China's rise.

Neither China nor the US is able to decide everything for the region while putting ASEAN countries aside. The latter deserves to have their space respected and bolstered.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.

Posted in: South China Sea Focus

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