BANGKOK, Jul 23 (Reporting ASEAN) – Coming on the heels of this month’s award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea, the exchange of letters between the leaders of China and ASEAN pledging to bring their relations to “a higher plane and make greater contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of this region and beyond” is particularly significant.
These assurances on both sides, released on Jul.19, are pivotal for strengthening ASEAN-China ties after the decision by The Hague-based PCA.
China regards ASEAN as “the priority in the neighbourhood diplomacy and will continue to support the ASEAN integration process and ASEAN’s centrality in regional cooperation,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang reiterated in his message to Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
For his part, Thongloun expressed the confidence that China will “further strengthen a rules-based ASEAN Community and deep our strategic partnership.”
Letters between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh echoed similar commitments. In his message, Minh emphasized ongoing efforts to implement fully the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) and the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.
After the PCA award finding in favour of the Philippines’ arguments against China on Jul. 12, ASEAN has been very measured in its reactions. ASEAN, as a whole, did not have a common position on the South China Sea issue, leaving each member state to form its own position.
The Philippines welcomed the verdict without the kind of temperament it had previously displayed. The new administration, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has extended an olive branch to China and offered to have direct talks to ease tensions in the wake of the ruling, which Beijing has rejected.
Vietnam, which contemplated taking similar action, has also embraced the PCA decision, but without the show of nationalistic fervour that had often marked issues related to disputes with China.
Other claimant states to parts of the South China Sea, such as Malaysia and Brunei, kept a low profile. Kuala Lumpur noted the award and urge all concerned to settle the dispute peacefully and according to the international law. In a similar vein, Brunei’s statement dwelled on current efforts by ASEAN and China to work on a code of conduct to manage this sensitive issue.
Other non-claimant countries of ASEAN issued similar sentiments, focusing on the regional and international principles that ASEAN has long endorsed.
So far, only Cambodia remains adamant in its position – to reject the PCA decision. In fact, mercurial Prime Minister Hun Sen personally lashed out at the court. Phnom Penh’s firmness on the issue has led to wide speculation that ASEAN might not be able to issue a joint communiqué as in 2012, when Cambodia was the ASEAN chair.
But three indicators disprove this speculation.
First, the Philippines has softened its approach to China, thus strengthening ASEAN’s overall position. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of ASEAN, recently commented that with Manila’s return to ASEAN’s embrace, ASEAN centrality would be strengthened. Under the Aquino administration, the Philippines had maintained a hard-line policy against China.
Second, judging from the performance of Laos as ASEAN chair so far and its discreet diplomacy in seeking consensus on difficult issues, it is clear that the host of this year’s ASEAN meetings will be able to forge a consensus on the South China Sea. As a career diplomat, Lao Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith has good rapport with his ASEAN colleagues, a quality that is crucial in drafting and getting agreement on a joint communique.
Third, unlike on past occasions, ASEAN members are now in agreement with the general thrust of the need to “fully respect the legal and diplomatic process” in manging disputes.
The leaders of ASEAN and China will meet in Vientiane in early September to commemorate the 25th year of their relations. Doubtless, these relations have been the envy of other dialogue partners. At the same time, the environment that helped promote their friendship in the past is no longer there today. The new strategic landscape, including rapid economic progress and the confidence of each ASEAN member, as well as a rising China, have made their present and future ties both more encompassing and more complicated.
Toward the end of his July letter, Premier Li expressed his wish that mutual relations with ASEAN would “go from strength to strength” and his hope that the friendship between the peoples from the two sides would be “everlasting.” If this is indeed the path that China and ASEAN have chosen to travel, they would need extraordinary political will and patience to overcome their differences in order to forge a new foundation for trustful relations in the next 25 years.
(*Kavi Chongkittavorn is a columnist with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.)
(END/Reporting ASEAN – Edited by Johanna Son)