WHEN the summit of leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) took place in Bangkok last June, the meetings, perhaps not surprisingly, said almost nothing about the dispute between Asean nations and China in the South China Sea.
The hope that Asean could move forward the long-discussed Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea was dashed. The COC hardly moved an inch.
Nothing happened because Thailand is not a party to the dispute, and it studiously avoided the issue in the summit discussions. The country is only involved because four of its Asean partners — Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines — have conflicting claims with China in the SCS.
Even so, this year Asean and China reportedly completed the first round of negotiations on the code, but experts say the next two rounds of talks are likely to be contentious because there is no sign that China will agree to anything that would undermine its maritime claims.
Asean foreign ministers, in a joint communique after their annual meeting this week, said some ministers had expressed concerns on “the land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the area which have eroded trust and confidence” and raised tensions. They didn’t name any country but repeated calls for “non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states.”
They also stressed the importance of upholding international law, including a UN law of the sea treaty that Beijing has not followed, according to a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.
Oddly, an advisor of Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinal told the Asean Media Forum, also in Bangkok, that it will take three more years before Asean can finalize a CoC in the South China Sea.
Three more years? Was this factotum speaking for himself, or for the Thai foreign minister? Or for China?
This is doubly unfortunate because the COC for many nations is the key to negotiating a peaceful solution to the sea dispute.
Significantly, Thailand is not yet done with hosting important ministerial meetings this year. It will host the Asean Regional Forum this August, which will include top officials from the United States, China and Russia.
It would be incomprehensible if the host expresses no interest in the South China Sea dispute, because the issue has highlighted the growing rivalry between the US and China in the region, which has heated up in recent weeks.
The US State Department has warned China about its bullying behavior towards its rival claimants in the SCS.
In turn, China’s foreign minister has told outside countries not to meddle in the issue, and not to agitate China’s neighbors.
This controversy in our view is finally about behavior. A country ought to behave better towards its neighbors, especially if it calls them “friends.“