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Still troubled seas

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“Hopes for calmer times under this year’s new management?” The Economist earlier tacked that keep-your-fingers-crossed title on a “leader” for a 2013 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. Were those “hopes” partly achieved Wednesday and Thursday in Brunei?

The meeting “went well,” President Aquino told reporters after an opulent working dinner in a vast stone-cum-marble building that Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah built just for the summit. Perhaps the now decade-old proposal to craft  a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea could proceed?

Asean leaders agreed on a “two-step approach” to deal with territorial disputes, the Brunei sultan said. Claimant states will deal with overlapping claims. Asean and China wish to tamp down tensions “and to urgently work on the Code of Conduct.”

Tiny Brunei (population: 400,000) took the rotating Asean chair in “a moment of almost existential crisis,” the Economist noted. Flush with petrodollars, Brunei is “in the happy position of being [financially] free not to kowtow to China—or anyone for that matter. That was Cambodia’s undoing last year…”

Asean chairs are supposed to be impartial. Not Phnom Penh. It blocked Vietnam and the Philippines from even referring in the final communiqué to the disputed Scarborough Shoal. And it peddled Beijing’s line: It will discuss claims with individual countries, not with Asean as a group.

States with coastlines like Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia have legitimate concerns over claims that may wash up against their shores. Even Brunei has title to a half-submerged reef.

Indeed, “Cambodia tried to pull a fast one on the Philippines and other Asean countries,” the Inquirer wrote after the 2012 summit. President Aquino rejected Prime Minister Hun Sen’s conference summary claiming Asean had agreed that negotiations on conflicting maritime claims “would be held within an Asean-China framework… We depend on international law and the UN….”

“Other [Asean] countries disputed Cambodia’s statement,” the New York Times noted. Between gritted teeth, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa churned out 18 drafts to reflect members’ concerns. Cambodia   ignored the protests. So these countries officially insisted on revisions.

For the first time in 45 years, Asean adjourned without its usually forgettable communiqué. Cambodia’s partiality derailed talks to fill in the blanks for a European Union-style economic bloc by 2015.

Asean leaders adopted the AEC Blueprint in November 2007. This would establish, just two years from now, a highly competitive single market and production base for its 10 member-economies. This coordination is to “facilitate Asean’s integration with the global community.”

Among other things, the plan includes freer flow of goods by whittling tariffs, spurring free flow of services across borders, and expansion of the $240-billion regional foreign exchange reserve pool, established to deal with financial crises.

“In the Philippines, we need to cobble the measures needed for inevitable differential impacts,” writes the Inquirer’s Cielito Habito. The time to do all these analyses is yesterday.

“Money can make demons turn and grind stones,” says a Chinese proverb. China this month pledged another $548 million in soft loans and  grants to Cambodia, Reuters reported. In return, Cambodia reiterated its diplomatic support for China.

Since 1994, Chinese investment in Cambodia has totaled $9.1 billion. That includes almost $1.2 billion in 2011. Thus, “some of the maps in the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh had Chinese place names in the South China Sea.” That’s peanuts since China gets far more.

Within Asean, China has a vote, albeit with a Khmer accent. In any Asean capital, like Jakarta or Bangkok, Beijing has two embassies: an official one and, across the road, a de facto clone in the Cambodian embassy. “Can Asean still craft a Code of Conduct for troubled seas—which Cambodia peddles to the highest bidder?”

Asean likes to resolve disputes “quietly amid the rustle of batik silks,” the Singapore Straits Times notes. That’s exactly how the publicity-shy Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah prepared then presided over the Brunei summit.

He flew to Manila to discuss the agenda with President Aquino. He touched base with other Asean leaders, as well as other key players. US President Barack Obama has crafted a “pivot to Asia” of US armed forces to, among other things, keep key sea routes open. China’s Xi Jinping oversees his country’s claims.

Bolkiah oversaw summit proceedings with an even hand. That didn’t keep him from saying that one of Brunei’s priorities, as this year’s Asean chair, is to see a legally binding Code of Conduct on the sea by yearend.

Asean may have committed a strategic mistake by agreeing to a crucial process that is easily stalled, says  territorial conflict scholar Carl Thayer. “China would not commit to anything that’d restrict its plans.”

This week, eight Chinese maritime surveillance ships sailed into the 12-nautical-mile zone off contested islands, which China calls Diaoyu and Japan dubs Senkaku. “If the Chinese were to make a landing, we’d expel by force,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Scarborough Shoal is 124 nautical miles from Zambales and 550 miles from Hainan Island. At the shoal, Chinese fishermen bolted underwater ropes to keep Filipinos from fishing in their own waters.

That’s where the Asean statement will be tested.

(E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com )


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