ASEAN should adopt ‘a common approach’
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Peace and stability: Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro (at podium) delivers the opening remarks at a seminar on the South China Sea at Hotel Borobudur in Jakarta on Thursday, as other speakers look on.(JP/Veeramalla Anjaiah)
The recent upsurge in tensions between Asia’s rising superstar China and claimant countries of Southeast Asia over islands in the oil-rich South China Sea, combined with the entry of outside players like the US and India into the fray, threatens to cause deep divisions among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and diminish the association’s status as an influential regional organization.
An international seminar — organized by the Center for Asian Strategic Studies — India (CASS-India), Indonesia’s Institute of Defense and Security Studies (IODAS) and the Institute for Maritime Studies (IMS) — in Jakarta on Thursday concluded that ASEAN must formulate a common approach and make efforts to solve the South China Sea issue in a peaceful manner.
“ASEAN should be responsible for, and take the initiative in, preventing an escalation of disputes in the South China Sea,” the one-day seminar concluded in a statement, a copy of which was made available to The Jakarta Post.
“Developing a common approach to solving the South China Sea issue should be a political responsibility, serving the strategic interests of the whole association, for that, the country assuming the rotating chairmanship must be held responsible for making speeding up negotiations and achieving a solution a priority.”
In July, for the first time in the organization’s 45-year history, ASEAN foreign ministers failed to issue a joint communiqué in Phnom Penh during their annual meeting due to deep divisions between ASEAN’s current chair Cambodia — a close economic partner of China — and claimant country the Philippines on the issue of the Scarborough Shoal and details on claims of other members in the South China Sea.
Geographically the disputed shoal, known in Chinese as Huangyan Island, is located a little more than 160 kilometers from the Philippines and 800 kilometers from China.
Cambodia’s move to utilize its chairmanship to serve the interests of China rather than fellow ASEAN members was not acceptable to many people in Southeast Asia.
“After all, we are all going to be one community in three years time. ASEAN’s unity and centrality are important,” Vo Xuan Vinh, a research fellow at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences said at the seminar.
Echoing a similar view, Thailand’s veteran journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn said there was a need for a common approach in solving the South China Sea issue.
“If all 10 members are united, the US will knock on our door and China will come to us,” Kavi told the Post on the sidelines of the seminar.
Opening the seminar, themed “Peace, Stability in the South China Sea and Asia Pacific: ASEAN Unity and Regional Power Engagement in the Region”, on Thursday, Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro emphasized the urgent need for solving the South China Sea disputes, and all ASEAN members and interested countries from outside the region had to be involved in the negotiations.
“In the immediate future it is important for ASEAN to give a high priority to the finalization of the formulation of a regional code of conduct on the South China Sea and to engage China as soon as possible”.
Since all the claimants are sticking to their guns, ASEAN must play a key role in easing the tensions.
“Claimant countries need to develop maritime confidence-building measures and explore ways for building trust and confidence that are based on equality and mutual respect. The involvement of non-regional powers should be made through, and supportive of, ASEAN,” IMS chairman Adm. (ret) Bernard Kent Sondakh said in closing remarks.