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Cooler Heads on the South China Sea?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
August 15, 2012

China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (L) is greeted by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for a meeting at the presidential office in Jakarta August 10, 2012. China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (L) is greeted by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for a meeting at the presidential office in Jakarta August 10, 2012 (Enny Nuraheni/Courtesy Reuters).

During his trip to Southeast Asia this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi vowed to work with ASEAN to reach consensus on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, according to reports by the Asia News Network. Yang visited Indonesia, which has been trying to rally ASEAN unity on the South China Sea, as well as Malaysia and Brunei, two of the nations that have claims to the South China Sea —but ones that have been far more reticent to cross China than Vietnam or the Philippines have been.

The Chinese media reported that Yang’s promise would cool tensions in the region, and would mollify Southeast Asian nations, and indeed Yang received some rhetorical support from leaders in Malaysia and Brunei. But since both of those nations have in the past been far more willing to bend to China’s demands, their stance shows little about whether the issue is really any closer to being resolved. The Philippines and Vietnam, which have hardly cooled down since the failed ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, even though ASEAN eventually produced a watered-down joint statement, are unlikely to see Yang’s visit as anything more than a weak make-nice try, or a Chinese effort to deepen splits within ASEAN over the Sea. And in Indonesia, the foreign ministry offered the usual bromides about Southeast Asia and China needing to work together closely to solve disputed areas in the Sea, but offered little substantive support for China’s positions. The Indonesian foreign ministry has made it a priority to maintain ASEAN unity on the Sea, partly through skillful Indonesian shuttle diplomacy; though Indonesia does not have direct claims on the Sea, given its ambitions of regional power, and its growing frustration with ASEAN, it has far less interest than Malaysia in simply accepting China’s demands.

Overall, then, Yang’s trip showed little new. Perhaps cooler heads are going to prevail, on both sides,  but there’s no evidence of that yet.

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  • Posted by Termsak C.

    Indonesia may not be a direct claimant in the South China Sea disputes for now, but China’s nine-dash line of massive claims does cut into Indonesia’s EEZ outside Natuna islands. Indeed, Indonesia’s primary concern now is to repair the serious political damage from the problematic 45th AMM in Phnom Penh. Sending the Chinese Foreign Minister to visit Jakarta, KL and Bandar Seri Begawan — but shunning Manila and Ha Noi — could be seen as China’s continuing use of its “divide and conquer” strategy of treating different ASEAN Member States differently. But now as a group, ASEAN is ready and is asking China to start formal discussions on the drafting of the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. During his tour of the three ASEAN capitals last week, the Chinese Foreign Minister would not commit China to engaging ASEAN on the COC just yet. He told ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Phnom Penh during the ASEAN+China Post-Ministerial Conference on 11 July that China would do so only when “conditions are ripe” because China “was shocked by unilateral provocative action” of two ASEAN countries (presumably the Philippines and Viet Nam) in allegedly stirring up trouble and dragging ASEAN into the South China Sea disputes. However, ASEAN and China are due to issue a joint statement at the upcoming ASEAN-China Summit in Phnom Penh in November to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the DOC. How and what to say in the planned joint summit statement? Most probably ASEAN and Chinese senior officials may meet in Phnom Penh in mid-September (back to back with ASEAN’s own preparatory meetings for the 21st ASEAN Summit) to start discussion on the joint statement, if not the COC itself. Good luck ASEAN!

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