Armed conflicts not realistic in South China Sea: experts

Posted on October 7, 2012 by

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By Thu Huong Le

JAKARTA – Countries would not head into armed conflicts even as tensions in the South China Sea seem to be escalating, experts have suggested.

“I think what the US and China want to avoid is for this to become another Korean Peninsula,” said Dr. Ralf Emmers, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore who has done extensive research on security and international politics of Southeast Asia.

“They want ASEAN to run the show.”

But whether the bloc can is another matter.

Earlier this week, Indonesia Foreign Affairs Minister Marty Natalegawa called on ASEAN member countries to make the future code of conduct on South China Sea more ambitious and prescriptive.

“I’m not 100 per cent happy about the current draft of the COC,” he said. “We need to have a benchmark. We have to sanction and punish those who disobey, and reward those who exercise restraints.”

Rising tension over territorial disputes between four ASEAN claimant states – Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia – were flared up after the so-called July incidence, when China apparently prevented ASEAN from releasing a communiqué outlining a common approach to the South China Sea.

Despite diplomatic efforts to make claimant states agree on a six-point principle, so far no official agreement has been reached, even after senior officials from ASEAN and China also met in Phnom Penh last week.

Between now until ASEAN Summit this November in Phnom Penh, ASEAN must come up with a common position, according to Indonesia’s top diplomat, to avoid of the organization becoming “irrelevant.”

Kavi Chongkittavorn, former editor-at-large of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok and former special assistant to Secretary General of ASEAN, said the test now is whether ASEAN and China have the political will to complete the much awaited regional code of conduct in the South China Sea in time for the Phnom Penh meeting.

“ASEAN now does not have the kind of unity it used to enjoy against major powers,” Chongkittavorn said. “In the case the COC negotiation drags on similar to the guidelines’ drafting process then it would further undermine the bilateral ties.”

The COC, however, is just the start.

“For the code of conduct to have some kind of relevance, you must have a conflict-prevention mechanism for preventing a situation from escalating into a conflict,” Emmers said.

From now until November, a lot of “behind-the-scene” diplomacy is needed, he added, to avoid the possible fall-out of smaller military clashes, which have apparently been increased since 2010.

In March, 23 Vietnamese fishermen were accused of illegal fishing and poaching near the Paracel Islands and only released seven weeks following strong demand from Hanoi.

Still, all sides can’t afford going further due to the much interrelated-economic activities. Trade between China and ASEAN hit a recorded high in 2011, amounting to nearly US$293 billion since the free trade agreement was launched in 2010.

As Danny Lee, director of Community Affairs Department at the ASEAN Secretariat puts it: “We’re China’s backyard. We have to keep trade open.”