Saturday, 14 July 2012

Investing in better relations

China and Asean edge towards better ties, mostly because of the risk of a deteriorating relationship.

ASEAN and China made moves during the week to upgrade ties, or at least to talk about the prospect of formal deliberations to do so.

The unusually roundabout manner of this, even for Asean diplomacy, was because much of the basis for it is the highly unlikely and delicate one of contested maritime territory in the South China Sea.

All contending parties have had to tread gingerly, with fingers and toes crossed. But other events have also played a role.

Asean countries had already made clear that regardless of disputes with each other or with China, no external party should get involved. It was not difficult thus to put US diplomats on notice.

So when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured South-East Asia this time, with an appearance at the Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh, she talked about economic cooperation rather than a “pivot” to “rebalance” against China. It contrasts with her last foray into this region and another Asean meeting.

However, Clinton’s office also had an official announce that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands claimed by both China and Japan fell under Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty. The official declared that the uninhabited islands were under Japan’s jurisdiction, bolstering Tokyo’s claim, and that the US was thus obliged to respond in any conflict.

That made officials in Beijing jump. It also made them seem more conciliatory on the Asean front, in a set of disputes over the Spratly Islands.

China declared on Wednesday that it wanted to strengthen “communication and cooperation” with Asean members with mutual benefit all-round. On the same day at the meeting in Phnom Penh, Thailand announced that it would not allow disputes in the South China Sea to disrupt cooperation between Asean and China.

Thailand is serving as coordinator between Asean and China over the next three years. It is not among the four Asean countries that are claimants to the Spratly Islands along with China and Taiwan.

It has been 10 years since Asean and China signed the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), a non-binding agreement covering “soft issues” like maritime research and environmental protection.

Since then, Asean has wanted to move on to a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC). But while China is all for the DOC, saying that it had yet to be implemented fully, it wants to move slower on the COC.

It is still unclear how far serious talks will go in creating a new status quo for the contending claims. On present form, despite all the pleasantries and avowed goodwill, any talks at all are unlikely to achieve anything substantial.

For decades, no specific talks had even been envisaged, let alone conducted satisfactorily and concluded successfully. Now differing positions are being taken over the DOC and the COC, which does not help, amid a general feel good feeling about everyone wanting to feel better, which may not get anywhere.

Prof Zhang Yunling is director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at Renmin University in Beijing. The following is part of an exclusive interview he gave during a recent ISIS conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Q. China’s rise has largely been economic; how else will it express its ascendancy in the region and the world?

A. China’s rise has reshaped the region’s economic structure, which has been a very positive development. It will continue to rise, and in other aspects, as well as play an important role.

Compared to the past, there are two differences today. First, it is based on an open economic structure, with close links with other countries, not top-down but in equal partnership as in production networks.

Secondly, there is institutional development, not just gestures as with the old China. There are equal rights, equal treatment of other countries, which are rules-based and multi-layered. We are moving ahead, but it also needs time.

There is greater movement of people, through travel and tourism, and people get to know each other better. There are also more projects for (international) assistance, training and capacity-building.

There is anxiety over China’s military build-up, but it is normal for China to develop its military along with its (economic) development.

One concern is a change in the existing order because China was not a player before. Japan has historical (baggage), the US has been dominant in the past, so there should be a place for China.

Another concern is over dispute settlement: previously there has been cooperative behaviour, now there are bigger armed forces. Yet no other country has so many unsettled disputes as China on both land and sea.

>How do you see China-US ties, today’s most important trans-Pacific bilateral relationship?

This is a very complex matter for China. For others, it is about how to accept a rising China and its role in a positive way.

Germany and Japan before were not bound by factors as China is today: agreements, commitments, shared interests. How China would manage these should not cause other countries to see it as a threat; it is now in a transitional period, without much experience of it.

The US is very important to China in economic terms. So China has to carefully manage relations with the US, to avoid any possible confrontation and seek any possible cooperation.

Both countries have such a close relationship which never occurred before between a rising superpower and an existing superpower. They have to live together and work together.

US technology and its economy are still dominant and important for China. But the US sees China as a threat, and ideologically wants to see China turn into a democratic country.

The US has always tried to make China more like it over the past 100 years, but not successfully – yet it is still trying. US pressure is very clear.

China wants to have its place, and the US has to prepare for that. It is trying to contain China, so China sees this as a threat.

But it’s not a zero-sum game as with the Soviet Union, because of the close interests between the US and China. The door is open, not closed.

> What is the status of China’s proposals to promote military cooperation with South-East Asian countries?

There is now no military cooperation. We should have regular defence ministers’ consultations and exchanges of military personnel.

There should be joint maritime operations for accidents at sea, for example. Also, on non-traditional threats at sea (piracy, terrorism, human trafficking, narcotics, illegal immigration).

There have been exchanges between China and Indonesia, and cooperation between China and Malaysia in producing military equipment.

> How has China’s perception of Asean changed over the years?

China sees the Asean process positively, acknowledging Asean’s role in creating a stable and cooperative region. There is the China-Asean FTA, with other cooperative projects.

All this is quite different from the past.

China hopes Asean can play a stronger role in the region for more cooperation and institution-building. Asean needs to be more united to work cooperatively towards a real Asian century.

Asean can help create a new regional institution. Asia should be a security provider, since there has been too much reliance on outside security providers.

Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara

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