The Jakarta Post
A South China Sea discussion was expected to be the highlight of the 22nd ASEAN Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan last week, considering the increased assertiveness of both China and claimant states from Southeast Asia, but the discussion did not materialize.
The summit did not conclude with a strong statement on the issue, discouraging any future efforts to settle the dispute peacefully.
Scholars agree that ASEAN'China relations have never been better in the last 16 years. This is mainly a result of increased economic ties and the considerable growth in trade volume between the two parties.
Such a phenomenon is one of the most important pillars of both China and ASEAN member states' economic growth. China is regarded as the new center of attraction, offering the member states wide-ranging flexibilities, fruitful economic relations and openness to multilateral frameworks that are significantly different from the US'Japan
However, China's engagement with ASEAN states has been continuously limited and filled with uncertainty. Until now, the region has not fallen within Beijing's sphere of influence. In this regard, ASEAN has been successful in restraining China's influence in the region. ASEAN has relentlessly engaged China through institutional involvements and multilateral frameworks.
Within such limitations, China's objectives remain clear and consistent. Chinese officials aim at create a stable periphery that would contribute positively to its economic growth. The quest for a strong economy has encouraged China to offer flexibility and be more accommodating in its interactions with Southeast Asian states.
In doing so, China expects to counter the 'China threat theory' that finds fertile ground as its economic and military capability continues to grow. As former premier Wen Jianbao once said, China should be viewed as a 'friendly elephant'. Such an image will support China's long-term interests as a potential superpower in the international system.
The South China Sea would certainly be regarded by China as a strategic interest in its energy security framework.
The image of a 'friendly elephant', however, fails to manifest in the case of South China Sea disputes. While both sides took the confidence-building measure of signing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties
to the South China Sea in 2002, ASEAN states have been haunted by China's pattern of assertiveness in managing the territorial disputes in which it is involved.
The Taiwan Missile Crisis in the mid-1990s and the occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 and 1998 demonstrated the way an assertive China tends to deal with territorial disputes.
These examples suggest that it is even more plausible that a stronger China in the 21st century will use force as an instrument in the settlement of territorial disputes.
As if confirming such a belief, China declared in 2012 that the South China Sea was its 'core interest', meaning that China's claim to the territory is non-negotiable. Beijing seems willing to use military force to respond to any party who challenges the status quo.
China's policies and behavior in managing the recent disputes will prove how strong Beijing's commitment is to maintaining stability in the region. In other words, they will test the lower limit of Beijing's interest in its interactions with ASEAN.
The issue of national unity is frequently utilized by the nationalist faction in China's domestic politics to push the government to be more assertive, which limits the flexibility of policymakers in Beijing. On the other hand, it is clear to them that such a move could be counterproductive to the country's interests in advancing its national economy.
This highlights the urgency for ASEAN to push China to make significant progress in addressing the territorial disputes in the South China Sea for at least three reasons.
First, with regard to its slowing economic might, Beijing should be concerned with preventing any potential conflict on its periphery that could negatively impact its economic performance. In line with its significant role as a source of legitimacy, China's economic development is still the priority of the Communist regime in Beijing.
Second, any non-cooperation measure leading to the failure of maintaining peace and stability in the region would allow other major powers, such as the US and Japan, to intensify their influence in the region, at the expense of Beijing's leadership and position in the regional balance of power. Moreover, internationalizing the dispute is something that Beijing has always tried to avoid.
Finally, it would be better for ASEAN to accelerate its progress now before China grows even bigger, as its demand for energy will also increase to support its economic wheel. The South China Sea, with its potential energy reserves, would certainly be regarded by China as a strategic interest in its energy security framework.
In its relations with ASEAN, the way China manages the South China Sea issue will showcase how China, as a great power, treats its neighbors. Assertiveness and inflexibility would only create a negative image of China, which is projected to play a more considerable role in global affairs in the future.
On the other hand, how ASEAN proceeds in managing this dispute will show what kind of regional institution ASEAN is. Having failed to achieve any significant development last year in Phnom Penh with ASEAN unable to merge contending interests internally, less meaningful progress was made in Bandar Seri Begawan this year.
With both internal and external limitations facing policymakers in Beijing, ASEAN still appears reluctant to issue the kind of strong statements necessary to show its commitment to making significant progress in managing the dispute.
This strategy of buying time, from the perspective of ASEAN'China relations, will not result in peaceful dispute settlement. China is continuing to grow larger both militarily and economically.
Any further delay in settling this dispute will only allow China to raise its bargaining power relative to ASEAN's.
When the situation arises in which ASEAN cannot catch up with China, that will be the time when peaceful dispute settlement is no longer plausible.
The writer is managing director of the ASEAN Study Center at the University of Indonesia's (UI) school of social and political sciences in Depok, West Java.
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