China using dialogue to ward off ASEAN unity: analyst

By David Dizon,

Posted at Jun 25 2014 12:04 PM | Updated as of Jun 26 2014 12:40 AM

MANILA - A foreign affairs analyst believes China is using dialogue to ward off any attempt by ASEAN member-states to unite and create a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

Ateneo professor Richard Heydarian said discussions on enhancing the Declaration on the Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) should come as a disappointment after China had already agreed last year to discuss a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the disputed region.

He said China's strategy is to use these dialogues to show that is not shunning diplomacy entirely and to de-escalate tensions in the region.

"To go back and discuss the 2002 declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, for me, just shows how the Chinese are still unwilling to bind themselves by any legally binding regional principle," he said in an ANC interview.

"This will serve as an opportunity for the Chinese to ward off ASEAN unity in the South China Sea," he added.

Heydarian said one concern for China is to neutralize opposition from other countries on its claims to the South China Sea.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have already spoken out about China's actions to assert its territorial claims. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the territorial disputes should be resolved through international law.

One barrier to ASEAN unity, according to Heydarian, is that 2-3 countries are in the strategic orbit of China and would likely reject any kind of concrete measure to put pressure on Beijing.

In 2012, Cambodia, which chaired the ASEAN summit of foreign ministers, refused to discuss the South China Sea as an issue of concern.

Heydarian said one way to solve the problem is to have ASEAN founding members such as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Indonesia to discuss its own unified stand on the issue whether in the ASEAN, parallel platforms such as the East Asian Summit or in trilateral meetings.

He also noted that President Aquino's visit to Japan is a "win-win" for both countries since it shows that the two countries are trying to find a way to de-escalate the tensions by going outside the framework of the ASEAN.

It also comes amid doubts on how much the United States is willing to "push back against China."

"If there is any country in East Asia with the wherewithal and the willingness to push back against China, it is definitely the Abe administration in Japan," he said.

He said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking greater regional acceptance of his plan for Japanese maritime forces to play a bigger role in regional security.

"This is a win win situation for both sides. For the Japanese, they get more endorsements from other countries in the region. The Philippines is the only other country aside from the US that is a strategic partner of Japan," he said.

"If we can bring in the Japanese to play a more pro-active role in the South China Sea, we send a clear signal to China that they cannot keep pushing their territorial claims without paying a strategic price. If you talk to Chinese strategists, they are a little bit concerned about how Japan is reasserting its regional leadership," he added.