A unified position on China is a tall order given the diverse interests of the 10-member group
Laborers work on a construction site for a housing development project in the Diamond Island area, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia holds the rotating chair of the 10-member ASEAN grouping this year. China has continued to capitalize on its economic clout to endear itself to the current and forthcoming chairs of ASEAN, where differing national interests have always thwarted efforts to formalize a code of conduct aimed at easing maritime disputes between Beijing and Southeast Asian countries.
Those who expected a formal code of conduct aimed at easing maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian countries to be hammered out this year had to think twice last week.
On March 31 Chinese President Hu Jintao asked Cambodia not to push talks on the East Sea - also known as the South China Sea - question "too fast."
But even before that, host Cambodia, which also holds the rotating chair of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, had pulled the issue off the agenda, with Prime Minister Hun Sen backing Hu's stance against internationalizing it.
Hu, meeting with Hun Sen ahead of a two-day ASEAN leaders' annual summit that opened Tuesday (April 3) in Phnom Penh, vowed to double bilateral trade with Cambodia to US$5 billion by 2017.
This latest move has exacerbated uncertainty over the formalization of a long-sought code of conduct (COC) as China has continued to capitalize on its economic clout to endear itself to the current and forthcoming chairs of ASEAN, where differing national interests have always thwarted a unanimous decision in this matter, analysts said.
"The COC is indeed a litmus test for ASEAN," said Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto, a maritime security analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
"The problem here is not only with China, but also within ASEAN itself, where countries are divided on the format of, and approach
to, COC, whatever it may be. However, China too, has its own preference of what the COC would like. This could also forestall the process," Supriyanto told Vietweek.
"Even though ASEAN managed to draft its first proposal, China's rejection of it could make ASEAN have to re-negotiate the draft among themselves, which means more time is needed."
China and four ASEAN members including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim territory in the South China Sea. China's claim is the largest, covering most of the sea's 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), a move that has been emphatically rejected by international scholars.
The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place China, the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar. It is the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and straddles shipping lanes between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East. More than half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes through it.
A slew of squabbles between China and ASEAN claimants in the disputed South China Sea have prompted protracted negotiations on a formal COC. In 2002 the parties involved issued the political Declaration of Conduct (DOC) and China finally agreed last July to guidelines for its implementation, saying it was open to "different formulas and initiatives."
But analysts said both the DOC and its guidelines are weak and nonbinding and that a robust COC is just off the Chinese radar of interest.
"It is not in China's interests to back a COC with any teeth in it," said Iskander Rehman, a Washington-based Asian security analyst.
"By continuing to engage in rather abstract verbiage, while refusing to provide any clear, tangible commitment [China] hopes to postpone the official formalization of the code almost indefinitely," Rehman told Vietweek.
The Philippines is urging its ASEAN counterparts to first agree on a common position before meeting with China, but others argued Beijing should be involved from the start, AFP reported Monday.
"I think the difference of opinion lies in the fact that we are advocating that a draft of the COC be prepared before we sit down with China," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was quoted by the newswire as saying. "Others are taking the view that China should be invited to come in for the initial discussions."
In an explicit gesture to assuage fears, del Rosario said he hoped ASEAN and China would sign the code this year during Cambodia's chairman of the regional bloc, particularly at the ASEAN-China summit slated for November in Phnom Penh.
"˜Where its mouth is'
Benjamin Ho, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Vietweek that given the lack of common position among ASEAN members, "it is not difficult to see why China prefers a bilateral approach to the South China Sea."
Ho wrote in a February commentary that "Beijing has... embarked on its own charm offensive by putting its money where its mouth is. By matching its political rhetoric with material resources, China has increasingly built its reputation as a credible long-term stakeholder within the region."
Ahead of Hu's visit, Chinese Ambassador Pan Guangxue told a press conference that China was one of the most important countries for Cambodia in terms of political relations, aid, trade, and investment, according The Cambodia Herald.
The paper quoted the Chinese ambassador as saying that bilateral trade had jumped more than tenfold from $224 million in 2000 to $2.5 billion in 2011 and that China had also contributed $2.1 billion in aid to Cambodia since 1992. Chinese companies are also the largest source of foreign investment in Cambodia with investment reaching $8.8 billion between 1994 and late 2011, the paper reported, citing the Council of Development of Cambodia.
Sambath Phou, a PhD candidate at the National Cheng Kunv University in Taiwan, wrote in a study on China-Cambodia relations that "Following the past decades, Hun Sen has cultivated ties with China, which has become a major source of foreign assistance and foreign investment in Cambodia.
""¦As Cambodia and Cambodians are demonstrating an almost unfathomable capacity to let bygones be bygones with regard to the former Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen has now buried the past and is embracing China, which he sees as a means of bringing economic development to Cambodia," said the study, titled "Cambodia-China Relation: Past, Present and Future."
Elsewhere, Myanmar's Ministry of Commerce said in January that major infrastructure investments meant China was Myanmar's major trading partner in the 2011-12 fiscal year through to December, The Myanmar Times reported. In the previous fiscal year, China overtook Thailand to become Myanmar's largest trading partner, with total trade estimated at about $5.2 billion, the paper said.
The Vientiane Times reported in February that Chinese investment in Laos reached $731.5 million last year, making China the leading investor in the landlocked country. The investment was an increase from 2010 when China invested $556 million and from 2009's $247 million, the paper said, citing the Lao government.
Friend or foe?
Amidst the unsettled divide among ASEAN members, analysts have pointed out that US involvement in the South China Sea dispute would just complicate the status quo.
"The US-China competition for the "˜hearts and minds' of Southeast Asia has begun to overshadow and influence the disputes and the attempt by [ASEAN] to manage them," Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based analyst, wrote in a The Japan Times article last week.
"Ironically, US backing may make it more difficult for ASEAN and China to agree on a COC because some claimants may be more assertive and even take riskier actions than they otherwise would, increasing instability in the South China Sea," Valencia wrote.
"Ratcheting up the pressure, the US has told ASEAN that it must come up with a common and clear position on a COC. Some pressure may be good "” but too much pressure could crack and even split ASEAN on this issue."
Supriyanto, the Singapore-based expert, said the ASEAN establishment's challenge is to avoid becoming an object of great power competition by becoming a major player in and by itself.
"In realpolitik, there is neither permanent friend nor foe, only permanent interests," he said.
A Reuters story last week described the Phnom Penh skyline as "dotted by Chinese-funded projects." It quoted a local as saying that he was unhappy with the fact that a Chinese-funded bridge employed more Chinese than Cambodian laborers.
But not all Cambodians share the thought.
"I feel it is acceptable," said Phou, the Cambodian author of the study on China-Cambodia relations.
"Surely, they come to Cambodia to invest and make money. They build roads, buildings, dams... and so on because they want to make money from Cambodia," Phou told Vietweek.
"But at the same time, they also help develop Cambodia. They bring a lot of Chinese workers to Cambodia "” maybe because Cambodia doesn't have enough human resources or our laborers are not as hard-working and efficient as Chinese laborers."
With the Cambodia government always in desperate need of foreign aid, "China is the best option for Cambodia," Phou said.
ASEAN TO "˜INTENSIFY EFFORTS' ON SEA DISPUTES
Southeast Asian leaders on Wednesday (April 4) pledged to step up efforts to resolve overlapping maritime disputes with China, at the end of a two-day summit which also focused on Myanmar and North Korea.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) "reaffirmed the importance" of a 10-year-old declaration on the conduct of the parties (DOC) pledging to promote peace and understanding in the disputed area.
"We stressed the need to intensify efforts to ensure the effective and full implementation of the DOC based on the guidelines for the implementation of the DOC," the leaders said in a statement at the end of the two-day summit.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen used his closing press conference to angrily reject reports of a rift over how to proceed in the negotiations with China.
He also denied he had tried to pull the issue off the agenda of the bloc's summit.
"Maybe some people think that during the ASEAN summit there is a difference of view between ASEAN and China. That is the wrong thinking," he said, adding that all parties were committed to peacefully resolving the disputes.
"What I hate the most is that they talk about Cambodia (being) under the pressure of China. Cambodia is the chairman of ASEAN and Cambodia has the right to set the agenda," he said through a translator. AFP