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.