Sat, Aug 11, 2018 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Beijing’s long game a risk to ASEAN

Singaporean Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday last week said that ASEAN and China had agreed on a single draft text to form the basis for negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea and on the “key modalities” for future negotiations, an announcement that was hailed as a major milestone in a years-long effort.

The congratulations might have been premature, not least because details of the text and the modalities have not been fully disclosed, but also because it seems that no one is expecting a deal any time soon.

While Balakrishnan was unwilling to talk about a possible timetable, citing the sensitivity of the negotiations, Yi Xianliang (易先良), director-general of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, this week said that talk of a timetable was unrealistic.

In an interview with China Newsweek magazine on Thursday, Yi blamed “outsiders” for not only pushing for a timetable, but for such a code of conduct deal to be legally binding.

However, it is not just “outsiders” who want a legally binding and enforceable code for the South China Sea; that has been the goal for those ASEAN members who also claim sovereign rights to portions of the sea: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Any such ASEAN-China deal is of course of crucial importance to Taiwan, which has its own territorial claims that rival those of China and the others, but is locked out of negotiations by the alliance’s diplomatic recognition of Beijing.

The problem with waiting for years for a code-of-conduct pact to be reached is that Beijing is aggressively pushing its military and commercial interests, as its land-reclamation efforts to create seven artificial islands demonstrate. Those islands are now equipped with runways, communications and other military facilities.

In addition, as of May, China began allowing visa-free travel for citizens of almost 60 nations to Hainan Province, whose Sansha City on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) administers Beijing’s claimed territory in the disputed Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島), as well as the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) and several other reefs and shoals, potentially paving the way for foreigners to join Chinese on cruises from Hainan to the Paracels, which were introduced in 2013.

An expansion of airport facilities on Woody Island has led to more commercial flights, with nearly 700 landing there last year, according to wire reports.

Paying attention to China’s commercial efforts, as well as its military activities, on the disputed islands is crucial, because under its proposals for the eventual code of conduct mentioned in the single text document is one that marine cooperation should be carried out just by ASEAN members and China, and “shall not be conducted in cooperation with companies from countries outside the region.”

Given that much of the enmity over the rival claims to the South China Sea comes from its potential oil, gas and mineral resources, as well as fisheries and other industries, any deal that restricted participation in exploration and development activities would give China’s state-owned enterprises and other corporations a massive advantage.

Malaysia seems cognizant of that risk with its proposal that nothing in the code should affect the abilities of the signatories to “conduct activities with foreign countries or private entities of their own choosing.”

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