Friday 14 September 2012

Asean's role in disputes an issue for China

Disputes are cropping up in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea between China and rival claimants. In the articles below, one writer parses the difference between Asean and China's positions; while the other traces the nationalist sentiments behind the tensions.
By William Choong, The Straits Times, 13 Sep 2012

CHINA has turned on its charm full blast after all the ructions over the South China Sea recently.

During a visit to Jakarta last month, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told reporters that China was willing to ease differences over the handling of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Speaking to The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao last Saturday, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying reiterated that China supported Asean's centrality and its playing a role in safeguarding the region's peace and stability.

Ms Fu's comments would be music to the ears of Asean diplomats. During Asean meetings in Phnom Penh in July, China had used its influence on Cambodia, the Asean chair, to prevent the issuing of a joint communique that mentioned the South China Sea dispute.

Yet a closer reading of Ms Fu's comments in that interview suggests that China's position on the South China Sea basically has not changed.

As repeated by other Chinese officials, she said that China has "strong historical and legal evidence" to support its claims to the South China Sea.

She added that any dispute settlement should be done between claimants on a bilateral basis.

More importantly, Ms Fu's comments about Asean's role in the South China Sea dispute highlight a subtle but significant difference between the Chinese and Asean positions. This does not portend well for the resolution of the dispute going forward.

For the longest time, Asean's position has been that it would play a moderating role in settling the South China Sea dispute.

This was articulated succinctly by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a visit to Beijing last week.

"The South China Sea is a major issue in the heart of Asean's own region. For Asean not to address it would severely damage its credibility," he told members of the Central Party School in Beijing on Thursday.

"Asean must not take sides on the various claims but it has to take and state a position which is neutral, forward-looking, and encourages the peaceful resolution of issues," he added.

On a visit to Singapore last Saturday, Ms Fu seemed to echo Mr Lee's take on Asean. China supported Asean's centrality and its playing a role in safeguarding the region's peace and stability, she said.

That said, Ms Fu provided a qualifier. Asean playing a role "does not mean that Asean should speak for any one country because if Asean takes sides, then it will be very difficult", she said.

One can understand Ms Fu's point of view if one explores Chinese perceptions of Asean. According to Associate Professor Li Mingjiang at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, many Chinese analysts believe Asean is taking sides in the South China Sea dispute, given that many Asean countries have supported America's so-called "re-balancing" to Asia.

Chinese perceptions of Asean should not be ignored. But the fact is that Asean does not take sides on various competing claims to the South China Sea. Instead, the grouping remains steadfastly neutral and has said that respective claims should be resolved between claimant states.

Both Asean and China agree that the disputes should be settled among the claimants themselves. But while both agree that Asean should play a role, they don't seem to agree on what that role is specifically.

Asean seeks to set the framework for the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute.

China says Asean can play a role in safeguarding regional peace and stability, but has remained silent - at least publicly - on what it thinks of Asean going beyond that to play a role in setting a framework to resolve the dispute. But many past remarks suggest that China views such a role as problematic, and that Asean would be seen to be taking sides with various claimants.

If China really believes that Asean is taking sides on the South China Sea issue, it would not portend well for the progress on the Code of Conduct (COC), a legally binding document that is being worked out between China and Asean.

In 2002, China and Asean signed the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC stipulated that signatories should resolve disputes through peaceful means and refrain from conduct of activities that would escalate tensions. The DOC, which is not binding, serves as a rough blueprint for the COC.

In July, Ms Fu said that China would start talks with Asean on the COC "when conditions are ripe".

In her interview on Saturday, she expressed scepticism about the COC, saying that there had been "repeated provocations" by some claimants not adhering to the DOC.

She refused to name specific situations, but it has been widely reported recently that Vietnam and the Philippines have challenged Beijing over their South China Sea claims.

Ms Fu said: "Back in China I am often confronted with such questions as: Why should China continue to shelve disputes and exercise restraint while others don't? What's the point of a COC when the DOC is not faithfully observed?"

She added that Beijing was in no hurry to negotiate the Code of Conduct.

Mr Ong Keng Yong, a former Asean secretary-general and now Singapore's envoy to Malaysia, notes that China's position on the South China Sea could have hardened.

According to him, China left open the possibility of Asean playing a role in the South China Sea dispute when both sides crafted the 2002 DOC.

He said the Chinese position has become more rigid when it comes to involving third parties such as Asean. "This could be a function of politics in China," he said.

Given the current difficulties in forging a COC, there are only two steps forward in the long term.

First, as Professor Robert Beckman, director of the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, has suggested in an article in these pages, claimant states should conform their claims with respect to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

The second step would be to bring respective disputes to international adjudication such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Recourse to the ICJ has been taken by Asean members such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Asean claimants to the South China Sea perceive that they would have a better chance at the ICJ than negotiating on a one-on-one basis with China.

Therein lies the problem: As a bigger power, China has an advantage when it comes to bilateral negotiations. At the Asean meetings in Phnom Penh in July, Chinese diplomats also stressed to their Asean counterparts that they could not be seen to be "soft" on the South China Sea issue, given growing nationalist sentiment at home.

Chinese officials have consistently stressed that the South China Sea disputes should be settled bilaterally. Moreover, when China acceded to Unclos, it issued a declaration exempting itself from Unclos dispute-settlement mechanisms.

That said, China's stature in the region will grow tremendously as and when it decides to seek international adjudication on the South China Sea disputes.

Writing in this newspaper last week, Professor Muthiah Alagappa, the Tun Hussein Onn chair in International Studies at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, conceded that major powers typically reject adjudication as it would curtail their power and influence.

But submission to international adjudication has the potential to enhance a country's moral power and influence, he added.

"Moral authority is superior to brute force," he said.

Truth the first casualty in tussles over islands
By Ian Buruma

THEY don't look like much, those few uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea between Okinawa and Taiwan, and a couple of tiny islets in the Sea of Japan, inhabited by a few token fishermen and some South Korean Coast Guard officials. The former, called the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, are claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan; the latter, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korea, are claimed by South Korea and Japan.

These tiny outcroppings have little material value, and yet the dispute over their ownership has led to a major international dust-up. Ambassadors have been recalled. Massive anti-Japanese demonstrations have been held all over China, causing damage to Japanese people and properties. Threats fly back and forth between Tokyo and Seoul. There has even been talk of military action.

The historical facts actually appear quite simple. Japan grabbed the islands as part of its empire-building project after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and the annexation of Korea in 1905. Prior sovereignty is unclear; there were fishermen from Japan in Takeshima/Dokdo, and some awareness of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in imperial China. But no formal claims were made by any state.

Things became more complicated after World War II. Japan was supposed to return its colonial possessions, but the United States took over the Senkaku Islands along with Okinawa, before returning both to Japan in 1972. The Koreans, still enraged at Japan for almost a half-century of colonisation, took the Dokdo Islands without worrying about the move's legality.

Given the brutality of the Japanese occupations of Korea and China, one is naturally inclined to sympathise with Japan's former victims. The fiery emotions inspired by this dispute - some Koreans even mutilated themselves in protest against Japan - suggest that the wounds of the Japanese war in Asia are still fresh. Indeed, South Korean President Lee

Myung Bak has used the occasion to demand a formal apology for the war from the Japanese emperor, and financial compensation for Korean women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels during the war.

Unfortunately, the Japanese government, despite much circumstantial and even documentary evidence supplied by Japanese historians, now chooses to deny the wartime regime's responsibility for this ghastly project. Not surprisingly, that stance has further inflamed Korean emotions.

And yet it would be too simple to ascribe the current dispute entirely to the open wounds of the last world war. Nationalist feelings, deliberately stirred up in China, South Korea and Japan, are linked to recent history, to be sure, but the politics behind them is different in each country. Since the press in all three countries is almost autistic in its refusal to reflect anything but the "national" point of view, these politics are never properly explained.

The communist government in China can no longer derive any legitimacy from Marxist, let alone Maoist, ideology. China is an authoritarian capitalist country, open for business with other capitalist countries (including deep economic relations with Japan). Since the 1990s, therefore, nationalism has replaced communism as the justification for the one-party state, which requires stirring up anti-Western - and above all, anti-Japanese - sentiment. This is never difficult in China, given the painful past, and it usefully deflects public attention from the failings and frustrations of living in a dictatorship.

In South Korea, one of the most painful legacies of the Japanese colonial period stems from the Korean elite's widespread collaboration at the time. Their offspring still play an important part in conservative politics in the country, which is why Korean leftists periodically call for purges and retribution. President Lee is a conservative, and relatively pro-Japanese. As a result, the Japanese view his recent demands for apologies, money and recognition of South Korean sovereignty over the islands in the Sea of Japan as a kind of betrayal. But, precisely because Mr Lee is regarded as a pro-Japanese conservative, he needs to burnish his nationalist credentials. He cannot afford to be tainted with collaboration. His political opponents are not the Japanese, but the Korean left.

The use of the war to stoke anti-Japanese feelings in China and Korea is annoying to the Japanese, and triggers defensive reactions. But Japanese nationalism is also fed by anxieties and frustrations - specifically, fear of rising Chinese power and Japan's total dependency on the US for its national security.

Japanese conservatives view their country's post-war pacifist Constitution, written by Americans in 1946, as a humiliating assault on Japanese sovereignty. Now that China is testing its growing power by claiming territories, not just in the East China Sea but also in the South China Sea, Japanese nationalists insist that Japan must act as a big power and be seen as a serious player, fully prepared to defend its sovereignty, even over insignificant rocks.

China, South Korea and Japan, whose economic interests are closely entwined, have every reason to avoid a serious conflict. And yet all three are doing their best to bring one about. For entirely domestic reasons, each country is manipulating the history of a devastating war, triggering passions that can only cause more damage. Politicians, commentators, activists and journalists in each country are talking endlessly about the past. But they are manipulating memories for political ends. The last thing that interests any of them is the truth.

Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College in the United States.

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