CHINA has made a quantum leap away from its long-held position about the South China Sea. Attending the 2016 summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Vientiane, Laos, as a dialogue partner, it has agreed to work together with the 10-nation Asean grouping to formulate a framework this year for a legally-binding code of conduct in the disputed South China Sea.
Chinese premier Li Keqiang earlier held talks with the 10 Asean heads of state that included four—Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines—which dispute China’s claim over almost all of the South China Sea as its private backyard.
China has held intransigently on to that position. It had openly rejected the ruling the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague made in July favoring the Philippines’ petition. That decision made under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) said there was no legal basis for China’s expansive claim under what Beijing calls the nine-dash line.
Besides, China has also been insistent on entertaining discussion on the dispute only on a bilateral basis.
Considering all that, the change of heart China presented in Vientiane is a welcome move.
Singapore, a founding member of Asean and not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, said to have played a key role in establishing a measure of détente for creating a common ground for discussion, deserves the appreciation of all.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s public assertion addressed to the President of the United States that “we have long ceased to be a colony” and “I do not have any master except the Filipino people,” could have also made Beijing realize that here is a leader far different from his predecessor, and with whom it can do business.
Now that a door has opened for talks, what can we expect from it? It seems like a fresh opportunity for both sides to move forward on the South China Sea front. The next steps taken by either side will be crucial. They could spell progress toward freedom from conflict or could get us back to the deadlock.
The stakes in the dispute are not only the territorial and economic interests of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines but also the interests of the rest of the world because of the area’s strategic nature in international sea routes. This latter element is said to be China’s primary concern.
Viewed from Beijing, the situation in its immediate neighborhood showed symptoms of turning disadvantageous to it. China detected signs of the US that has lost its all-too-powerful military presence in Southeast Asia following the end of the Vietnam War now trying to regain it. But it was enough provocation for a nation that has long been held in check by America’s military and economic might, and now awakened as almost an equal power.
So, the framework for a legally-binding code of conduct that could be hammered out within this year will be just that—a code for fishing in the area and, hopefully, shared exploitation of the mineral resources under the seabed for the benefit of all parties, perhaps except Taiwan. Any expectation of China redrawing the so-called nine-dash line that was inscribed on the Chinese map some seven decades ago defining its claim across the South China Sea will remain a distant dream.
In all possibility, the claims over the South China Sea could become dormant after a code of conduct has been ratified and China letting everyone operate as before tension began building in the region. At the same time, we should expect China to retain its control over the artificial islands it has created in the area as its naval and air outposts as deterrents against America flexing its military muscle in the region again.
We, as a nation, need to accept that harsh reality. As President Duterte has repeatedly said, we should not think in terms of using force against a neighbor that is many times mightier than us. We should talk.