ASEAN needs clear mind in sea disputes

By Ge Hongliang
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Global Times, July 25, 2016
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As stakeholders of the South China Sea situation, the inconsistent stance of ASEAN in recent days have once again proved that it is time for the bloc to realize its role in the issues related to the waters.

During the Special China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Yuxi, Yunnan Province in mid-June, a month before the announcement of the South China Sea arbitration award, foreign ministers from ASEAN nations stressed "full respect for legal and diplomatic processes," which led to an unpleasant atmosphere at the conference.

Later, the organization decided not to issue any joint statement on the arbitration award.

For a very long time, ASEAN did not hold any stance on the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines-filed arbitration case is in fact a matter of a conflict of sovereignty. Hence the organization should not break its principle of not taking a side on certain nations' sovereignty disputes in the waters.

This indicates that ASEAN must know its role in the South China Sea issue. Its function should be enhancing mutual understanding and mutual trust among claimant nations, creating a good environment in the region, and cooling down the tension in the waters together with China. China-ASEAN security cooperation in the South China Sea is a cornerstone of stability in the area.

The Beijing-raised dual track approach in 2014 specifically recognized ASEAN's important role in jointly maintaining stability in the South China Sea. After the approach was put forward, a series of arrangement and establishments of mechanisms in 2015, the year of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation, has undoubtedly benefited the shared effort from two sides in maintaining security in the South China Sea.

The Special China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting last month symbolized that both Beijing and ASEAN nations agreed to carry out a dual-track approach through such gatherings, fulfilling the promise of jointly safeguarding peace in the waters as well as creating a favorable atmosphere for diplomatic negotiation between China and other claimant countries.

However, the meeting also showed that there is a very significant precondition of implementing the dual-track approach: ASEAN must not take any stance in the South China Sea sovereignty disputes. Only in this way can we establish a relationship of benign interactions, which will not only bring down the heat of current tensions, but also increase mutual understanding and mutual trust, and generate a spillover effect on negotiations between Beijing and other claimant nations.

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which was issued in 2002, as well as its implementation guidelines released in 2011, are the most important proof of joint work between China and ASEAN in maintaining South China Sea security. Nevertheless, the situation on the waters has failed in taking a turn for the better.

Especially after the South China Sea arbitration award is issued, the overall implementation of the DOC and the promotion of the implementation guidelines have started to face huge challenges. Therefore, both Beijing and ASEAN need to find more ways to handle the problem.

First of all, they should form a "South China Sea mentality." Peace and stability in the waters are in the common interest of both China and ASEAN. More importantly, it is the foundation of Sino-ASEAN ties as well as the prosperity and development of the region. This is also the basis of the "South China Sea mentality."

Each side should further promote the practice of the DOC and negotiations over implementation guidelines, improve China's relations with the states which have disputes with Beijing, provide security rules in the South China Sea and build a platform for dialogues and communication.

We should also face up to the roles of major countries outside the region, including the US. The US-dominated regional security framework has been haunting the security of the waters.

The 2016 ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum will be held soon in Laos. A summit over the 25th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations will also kick start in September. Smooth communication over the South China Sea between China and ASEAN will without question bring good news for the implementation of a dual-track approach, but all that is based on whether ASEAN can get a clear understanding of its role in the waters.

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