After 15 years of discreet and patient diplomacy over the overlapping claims in South China Sea, both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China have now showed signs of fatigue at the lack of progress towards a resolution as well as joint development schemes. Incidents of alleged intrusions and confrontations in the resource-rich maritime territories among various claimants have increased in the past two years.
But the most serious one occurred on March 2 when the Philippine oil exploration ship, MV Veritas Voyager, was harassed by the Chinese Navy patrol boats at Reed Bank. It topped the agenda when Chinese Defense minister Gen. Liang Guanlie visited the Philippines last week. The incident immediately harked back to the event in March 1995 when the Philippines confronted China after the discovery of new structures in the Mischief Reefs, which subsequently led Asean to issue a joint statement, the first and only one, expressing “serious concern” over Beijing’s action.
Over those years, there were high hopes that the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China in 2002 would not only encourage the claimants to restrain from any activity that would destabilise the whole region but help to resolve issues related to territorial sovereignty. Somehow the long-standing pledge for the promotion of trust-building measures and mutually beneficial cooperative continue to be an elusive aim in the past nine years.
One stumbling block remains the wordings of the implementing guidelines of the 2002 document, which was agreed upon when their bilateral relations were at the zenith.
The Asean claimants, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and China still fight over them when their senior officials last met in Medan, Indonesia. Given the current tension and growing mutual suspicion, especially between China and Vietnam/Philippines, it is doubtful if they could finalise the guidelines in time for next year’s 10th commemoration in Phnom Penh, when Cambodia chairs the 20th Asean summit. Their collective assertiveness showed that the disputes in South China Sea represent their core national interests.
More than conflicting parties like to admit, the relatively benign environment which Asean and China used to enjoy tackling the South China Sea problem since the Mischief Reef in 1995 effectively ended last July.
The dispute got an international stamp when the US Secretary Hilary Clinton raised the issue openly on the freedom and safety of navigation in South China Sea and expressed a strong support for the Asean document.
Furthermore, the US also offered to facilitate diplomatic efforts to find a resolution. From that moment on, China and the Asean claimants knew full well that the conflicts have been thrown open into an international arena – something they kept under wraps for the past 15 years.
China was quite happy to continue negotiations with Asean over the guidelines without intervention from other players. Back in 1994, when China was still a consultative partner of Asean, visiting Chinese Foreign minister Qian Qichen told Asean counterparts in Brunei Darussalam that Asian countries must solve their problems in an Oriental Way.