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ASEAN is living dangerously in South China Sea

The South China Sea’s benign environment of the past has effectively been destroyed. In the past few months, it is clear that the tension has increased manyfold. If the temperature continues to rise, it could reach boiling point. It is possible that there will be armed conflict in the area as never before seen. After all, the territorial claimants have acted in such ways that other claimants can no longer tolerate. The past ability to predict what each claimant plans to do has now completely disappeared.

Vietnam is a good case in point. Hanoi has recently lashed out at Beijing in ways that surprised its ASEAN colleagues as well as the international community. For a decade, Vietnam, as one of the ASEAN claimants, has kept its frustration under wraps, in line with ASEAN guidelines that this is a matter that can be settled bilaterally between China and each ASEAN claimant. Suddenly, after serving as last year’s ASEAN chair, Vietnam has emerged as the regional grouping’s driving force in pushing the envelope.

Last year the South China Sea was highlighted as a key regional issue that has the potential to become the region’s next hotspot. Major powers, especially the U.S., have entered the fray to ensure that these pivotal sea lanes are free and safe. It is under this pretext that other non-claimants have got involved in the overall scheme of things.

Earlier, the Philippines also increased its decibel level against China over reef banks that are said to be rich with oil and gas. Manila could no longer stay quiet after various incidents that tested the strength of the Philippines’ bilateral relations with China. While these ties remain strong, the claimants also realize that when it comes to their respective claims in the South China Sea, there will be no let on or compromise. It will not be long before other claimants adopt the same attitude to ensure their claims are not forgotten or trumped by other vigorous rivals. This is a new attitude among all claimants.

As such, it is regrettable to say that the future does not bode well for China-ASEAN relations if such sentiments continue to reign, because it will prove divisive among ASEAN, individually and as a whole.

If ASEAN members have to choose sides, it will further endanger the unity of ASEAN. Already the so-called claimant and non-claimant dichotomy within ASEAN has weakened the group’s collective bargaining force. Doubtless, claimants want to see their counterparts present a common stand against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

With Beijing’s strong rhetoric, it is highly unlikely we will see any breakthrough in the ongoing discussions on the future guidelines to implement the declaration of the code of conduct concerning all claimants. Both China and ASEAN now have to find a common instrument that they can work within to push forward joint cooperation in the South China Sea, if the present guidelines continue to remain a stumbling block. That can only happen after China has reassessed its policy and position toward ASEAN after last year’s numerous incidents in the South China Sea. When it does, ASEAN will know whether working together ― as members have pledged all along ― is possible.

(Editorial, The Nation (Thailand))

(Asia News Network)
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