Agreeing to disagree – The Edge Review

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Region’s foreign ministers paper over differences, for now

China and the Philippines remain at odds over the South China Sea. Philippines President Benigno Aquino speaks at the recent World Economic Forum held in Burma (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

China and the Philippines remain at odds over the South China Sea. Philippine President Benigno Aquino speaks at the recent World Economic Forum held in Burma (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

YANGON – On the face of it, it was no more or less successful than most other meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), save for the occasional cabaret performances such as last year’s gathering in Cambodia, where the hosts infuriated fellow ASEAN member-states – particularly the Philippines and Vietnam – by peddling China’s line on the disputed South China Sea.

Ahead of the grander East Asia Summit to be held nearer the end of the year, ASEAN foreign ministers and counterparts from world powers such as China, Japan, Russia and the United States gathered in the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei early this week to discuss security and the economy.

With just over two years to go before the proposed establishment in 2015 of the ASEAN Economic Community – a regional version of the old European Common Market – the talks in Brunei were overshadowed by a range of issues, from the ceaseless brutality of the civil war in Syria to fugitive American whistleblower Edward Snowden to what to do about North Korea.

Meanwhile, thick smog covering parts of Malaysia and Singapore coming from forest and peat fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra had observers wondering before the meeting whether it would end up in the uncharacteristic acrimony witnessed at last year’s summit in Cambodia.

As it turned out, that didn’t happen, but ASEAN stands accused of glossing over the choking annual haze from Indonesia, which this year caused unprecedented levels of air pollution in Singapore and parts of Malaysia. Has anything changed? Maybe there will be progress on the issue by this time next year when foreign ministers meet in Myanmar, said Yang Razali Kassim of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“A significant outcome of the Brunei meeting was the agreement to set up a trilateral process of monitoring and reporting trouble-shooting steps on the ground in Sumatra. While details would be worked out after the meeting, the process will involve at the core three countries – Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia – who will assign officials to study the ground and then report to ASEAN leaders who will oversee and manage the transboundary haze problem,” he told The Edge Review.

And while the haze dispute will likely burn itself out before the bigger Asia-Pacific summits set for later this year, the South China Sea dispute, as ever, threatened to cast a pall over proceedings in Brunei.

Before the meetings. the Philippines in mid-June sent men and materiel to a shipwreck on the Second Thomas Shoal, a coral reef that Manila says is inside its waters and near to where China sent ships of its own in May.

In turn, China’s government-run People’s Daily, which often reflects government thinking in harsher terms than Chinese diplomats would prefer to use, warned the Philippines on the eve of the Brunei meeting that it risked a “counterstrike” from China and slammed ASEAN as an “accomplice” of the Philippines, accusing the bloc of working together against China over the South China Sea.

At the meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi toned down the rhetoric, if only a notch. “The differences on the South China Sea are not an issue between China and the whole of ASEAN. It should not, and will not, have a substantial impact on the overall relationship between us,” he said.

But he had a warning for those ASEAN countries at odds with China over maritime claims. “The few individual countries that go against the prevailing trend of peace and stability on the South China Sea will not have the support of the majority of nations,” Wang said.

ASEAN’s response was to ask China to begin formal consultations on the long-sought Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea, which is aimed, in part, at providing a framework to reduce the risk of military confrontations over the disputed maritime claims. Academic Carl Thayer – a prolific analyst on South China Sea affairs – said the request “is a step up from China’s present commitment to discuss the COC informally.”

China will host further talks on the COC in September, though if its behavior in recent months is anything to go by, the real agenda on the sea will be set by gunboat diplomacy.

“China has adopted a policy of responding and reacting to any development concerning the South China Sea by blasting back,” Thayer told The Edge Review.

The U.S. might have given the Chinese some cause for rhetorical riposte in Brunei. Amid concerns that the American “pivot” to Asia is being turned back by spreading conflict in the Middle East, the U.S spoke up about its interests in the South China Sea.

In a use of the definite article likely to raise temperatures – if not eyebrows – in Beijing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told ASEAN counterparts that “As a Pacific nation, and the resident power, the United States has a national interest in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.”

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