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China’s dangerous divide and conquer game with ASEAN

China is adamant that the South China Sea disputes will not affect its relations with ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations), but its actions in the disputed waters have transformed this diplomatic conundrum into a strategic reality.

China’s dangerous divide and conquer game with ASEAN

Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi announced that China, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos had reached a ‘consensus’ on South China Sea, but Beijing appears to have lost the plot when it comes to the territorial dispute in the strategic waters. PHOTO: AFP

China is adamant that the South China Sea disputes will not affect its relations with ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations), but its actions in the disputed waters have transformed this diplomatic conundrum into a strategic reality.

While Beijing is careful to cultivate close ties with ASEAN, it appears to have lost the plot when it comes to the territorial disputes in the strategic waters.

The latest blow came last Saturday when Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi announced that China, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos had reached a “consensus” on South China Sea.

The four points in the so-called consensus are as follows:

First, the South China Sea disagreements are not disputes between China and ASEAN, and the matter should not affect China-ASEAN relations.

Second, the rights of all countries to independently choose the way to resolve the dispute in accordance with international law should be affirmed. The imposition of a unilateral approach would be wrong.

Third, in accordance with Article IV of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), China and the three states believe that the parties involved should resolve disputes over their territorial and maritime rights and issues through dialogue and consultation.

Fourth, China and ASEAN states have the capacity to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea, and external parties should play a constructive role, rather than the reverse.

While four members of the 10-member regional grouping — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea with China, ASEAN has consistently adopted and applied the precept that it does not take sides on the merits of the sovereignty claims.

The disputes are for the claimant states to resolve in a peaceful manner, consistent with international laws and ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity of Cooperation, which China signed in 2003.

However, this does not mean that ASEAN should distance itself from the South China Sea issue. First and foremost, ASEAN has a legitimate interest to ensure that freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as safe passage in the strategic maritime commons are upheld and regional security is not imperilled.

In fact, it would be irresponsible for ASEAN to sidetrack the South China Sea disputes given its potential to jeopardise the current warm and mutually beneficial relations between ASEAN and China.

The parties to the “consensus” should recognise that ASEAN is the only viable mechanism to manage the South China Sea disputes where all the claimants could engage in rational discussions on this divisive subject.

LITTLE TO GAIN IF ASEAN BREAKS RANKS

It bears reminding that it was the ASEAN and China cooperation that led to the conclusion of the DOC in 2002. Rising tensions and growing mistrust between ASEAN and China in the past few years require both parties to work even harder to labour towards the official and binding Code of Conduct (COC) to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea.

The COC is ASEAN and China’s best hope to reset their frail strategic relations.

Keeping the South China Sea issue out of ASEAN discussions may help China to save face, but this diplomatic victory comes at the high strategic cost of driving the claimant states closer to the US and Japan. China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea has made it easier for concerned ASEAN member states to support the US rebalancing towards Asia.

Likewise, Beijing’s actions have also facilitated acceptance of Japan’s expanding security role in the region.

The four-point consensus will reverberate in ASEAN circles in three ways. First, it puts the spotlight on Laos and raises the question if Vientiane could exercise its ASEAN chairmanship duties objectively without caving into Chinese demands.

Second, of the three ASEAN member states’ endorsements, only one — Brunei — is a claimant state.

Third, China will be called out for undermining ASEAN unity.

It will face harsher criticisms than it did in 2012, when it exerted its leverage on Cambodia to curtail the inclusion of South China Sea into the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting joint statement. ASEAN’s credibility was questioned when it failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in its history.

Regardless of China’s intentions, the four-point consensus will be perceived as an attempt to break ASEAN’s solidarity and cohesiveness on South China Sea.

China’s “divide-and-conquer” tactic is a dangerous game, the grave outcome of which will be a weakened ASEAN, where the ten member states are more susceptible not only to Chinese influence, but also that of the extra-regional powers.

A united and strong ASEAN that can uphold its centrality will ensure that South-east Asia remains an open, inclusive and stable region that embraces China alongside other important external partners in the effort for collective security and economic growth.

It may be counterproductive for China to challenge ASEAN centrality, but even more importantly, ASEAN member states must realise there is little to gain from breaking ranks.

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