Still Troubled Seas

by Juan L. Mercado

“Hopes for calmer times under this year’s new management?”  Economist earlier  tacked that  keep-your-fingers-crossed title on a  “leader”  for  a  2013  Association of South-East Asian Nations summit.  Were those “hopes” partly achieved Wednesday and Thursday in Brunei?
”The  meeting “went well”, President Benigno Aquino III told reporters,  after  an opulent  working dinner at 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. . Asea 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”, Economist  noted. Flush with  petro-dollars, “puts Brunei 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  Phom Penh. It  blocked  Vietnam and the Philippines from  even  referring  in the final communiqué about the disputed Scarborough Shoal. And it peddled Beijing ’s line: It’d discuss claims  with individual countries,  not with Asean as a group..

States with coastlines like  Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, 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,” Inquirer wrote after the 2012 summit.. President  Aquino rejected Prime Minister Hun Sen’s conference summary that claimed Asean 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,” New York Times noted. Between clenched teeth, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister 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  it’s usually forgettable  communiqué. Cambodia ’s partiality derailed talks to fill in blanks for a European Union-style economic block 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 to 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 for 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 Benigno 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 year’s end.

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”.

Eight Chinese  maritime surveillance ships, this week,  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 shoals are 124 nautical  miles from Zambales and  550 miles from Hainan Island.  At the shoals, Chinese fishermen  bolted underwater ropes to keep Filipinos  from fishing in their own waters.

That’s where the Asean statement will be tested.


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