A Vietnamese soldier stands watch overlooking the South China Sea. Photo: Facebook

The South China Sea (SCS) issue has been a bottleneck for ASEAN-China cooperation, a cause of strain in the unity of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and a reason for allegations and geopolitical conspiracies. Every ASEAN member state, including Vietnam, China’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia, acknowledges that the ASEAN-China partnership is the most dynamic. However, with the uneasy relations between China and Vietnam on SCS issues, the concern looms whether ASEAN will be put into direct confrontation with China under Vietnam’s ASEAN chairmanship and membership of the United Nations Security Council next year.

ASEAN as an institution has been increasingly exhausted by the internationalization of SCS issues. Drafting sessions of ASEAN statements always involve enduring overnight negotiations from technical level to ministerial level. ASEAN is constantly on the verge of a breakdown like what happened during the negotiation of the joint communiqué in Phnom Penh in 2012. In any circumstance, there is a growing trend to accept the oversimplification that any failure to reach a consensus over a joint communiqué or any other ASEAN statements in which SCS issues are involved are caused by Cambodia, which is perceived as a vassal state of China, despite the fact that negotiations among 10 actors with different interests and positions are highly complex.

The focus on ASEAN integration and community-building has earned secondary attention because of the great energy spent on SCS issues. Countries find themselves squeezed over how they should define regional interest, how to ensure unity and solidarity in accordance with the “ASEAN Way” – which utilizes compromise, consensus, and consultation while prioritizing informal decision-making processes and non-conflictual ways of addressing outstanding issues – and how to ensure the mutual trust and confidence that have supported the ASEAN community thus far.

It is in ASEAN’s interest that it try to visualize the community beyond the SCS issues. It is in the interests of both ASEAN and China that they find better ways to mitigate the growing distrust between Beijing and some ASEAN claimant states over these issues.

Internationalization, antagonism and confrontation do not serve the interests of peace and stability in the region.

Looking at past experiences, ASEAN has its own know-how on mediation. There are examples of how the bloc dealt with complex internal issues between ASEAN member states as well as between ASEAN member states and external actors.

The most recent case was when Malaysia mediated for a compromise text between Bangladesh and Myanmar over the issues of Rakhine state during the Ministerial Meeting of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement (CoB-NAM) in Caracas, Venezuela, in July.

When clashes erupted between Cambodia and Thailand over the ownership of the land surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple, the mediating role of then-Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natelegawa through “shuttle diplomacy” in 2011 was exemplary. Marty’s diplomacy helped cool the situation down and partially contributed to stopping bloodshed.

In retrospect, Cambodia’s conflict with Thailand proved that internationalizing territorial disputes has not led to any solution. Cambodia and Thailand were told by ASEAN member states not to internationalize territorial issues, and that both countries should resort to international law, to conduct dialogue peacefully, to prevent wars and to find ways that both countries’ governments and people could accept with grace and honor.

While Cambodia has two International Court of Justice rulings, in 1962 and 2013, to back its legitimate claims, none of the current claimant states of SCS territory has any ICJ ruling that has universal binding effect.

When China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims, who is supposed to judge their legitimacy? When claims are not settled, the heated discussion on SCS issues raises the question of whether it is about the advocacy of international law and rule-based international order or about alliance-making and profiteering from strategic containment policy of or by the superpowers.

At the end of the day, bilateral trust and dialogue are the only way out. The fact is even though Cambodia has two ICJ rulings in hand, would the situation be calmed down without common desire and mutual trust between Cambodia and Thailand?

For the SCS issues, one has to acknowledge that the trust factor has been diminished among the claimant states to support robust bilateral dialogues. Trust cannot be built by the increase of military-related activities, sending of aircraft carriers, increase of naval fleets, submarines, oil exploration or building of encircling alliances. Mobilizing all ASEAN member states, including the non-claimants, to gang up against China or tarnishing China’s image in international fora deviates from ASEAN’s modus operandi, which prioritizes consultation, dialogue and non-conflictual and non-confrontational ways. Such actions do not encourage China to engage meaningfully in negotiations either.

There is a need for brokerage and mediation to restore and stabilize trust among claimant states so that they can return to institutionalize bilateral talks firmly. To that end, Indonesia is probably the best candidate to do so. As a non-claimant to disputed territory in the SCS, coupled with Indonesia’s non-antagonistic relations with China, its maturity in maintaining ASEAN centrality and balancing regional interest with external partners, Indonesia knows best how to utilize the “ASEAN Way” and enjoys considerable trust from all parties involved to undertake such an important task for international peace and stability.

Sim Vireak

Sim Vireak is a strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh. He has written articles on a variety of topics pertaining to Cambodia's political economy, development and foreign affairs. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of his affiliation.

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