Restoring unity at South China Sea

I DON’T usually pay attention to Asean meetings as there are so many of them but the disappointing outcome of the recently concluded Asean Ministers Meeting (AMM) in Phnom Penh caught my attention.

The failure of the meeting to come up with a joint communiqué was striking even to casual observers.

The failure, the first in the bloc’s 45-year history, caused by disagreement among Asean members over the South China Sea dispute, was a worrying development that has cast doubts over its ability to speak in unison on this thorny issue.

The last thing Asean needs is to be caught in a turf war for superpowers in its own backyard.

The South China Sea, which is so crucial not only to the littoral states but to the international community at large, could well be that stage.

China has been seen by many as acting “assertively” in backing its claim of the sea and has been involved in several stand-offs with Vietnam and the Philippines, which have also reacted strongly against China in those situations.

I wonder if Malaysia, as a claimant state, should start thinking of having in place specific contingency plans to confront the kinds of situation that Vietnam and the Philippines have faced against China.

I know Malaysia enjoys close bilateral and people-to-people relations with China. Beijing has even described us as a “special friend”.

Despite this, let us be reminded that China also has deep relations with Vietnam and the Philippines.

It even has nearly inextricable economic and strategic relations with the United States, a potential adversary and with whom it has clashing interests in the sea.

I am not schooled in the fine art of international relations but I believe nations should not always think the best of others and must be prepared to face any eventuality.

In the context of the South China Sea, such eventualities should include facing potentially hostile and intrusive acts of our neighbours which can undermine our interests.

Any one of the claimant states can turn adversarial but I believe we have to pay special attention to China.

Its recent actions such as patrolling disputed waters and deploying a garrison at Sansha city to impose its jurisdiction all point towards Beijing’s readiness and resolve to assert its claims.

What would Malaysia do should we find the cables of our offshore exploration vessels cut by a Chinese vessel or if Chinese surveillance and patrol vessels appear in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), situations which Vietnam and the Philippines have faced?

I believe Malaysia should prepare contingency plans to face such situations. Merely reacting to developments in this high-stake theatre would not be good enough.

The tense situation underscores the need for a binding code to govern the behaviour of the claimants.

Such a code will compel them to settle their disputes through peaceful means and using international law.

While I noticed progress between Asean and China to come up with guidelines for the Declaration of Conduct in the sea between them, they still have a long way to go before they can agree on a Code of Conduct.

On the outcome of the AMM meeting in Phnom Penh and China’s refusal to discuss disputes multilaterally, I foresee a prolonged impasse. At the rate things are going, I don’t see China changing tangent of not wanting to discuss the dispute multilaterally.

The Code of Conduct that Asean and China are working to establish would not be efficient if it did not include all the claimants. In this regard, one wonders if it would make sense to include Taiwan, which is also a claimant in the sea, to be a party to such a code.

It would not make sense to ignore this claimant in the construct of a code to govern the conduct of claimant states. What set of conduct then would Taiwan be subjected to if the Code of Conduct is agreed only between Asean and China?

Besides ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules, bringing Taiwan into the fold could help yield fresh perspectives to the discourse on disputes at sea, which to me seems to be getting nowhere.

Taiwan has much to offer in areas such as marine scientific research, fishery management/conservation, environmental protection, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and search and rescue.

The claimant and littoral states could tap into Taiwan’s expertise in these areas and promote cooperation, build confidence and avert further tension.

I hope my take on the subject would provide food for thought to claimant states and prompt them to set aside differences and work together towards peace.

I believe Malaysia as a claimant state should not only be steadfast in safeguarding its interests but should also show initiative to promote peace.

Malaysia can leverage its position as a founding member of Asean and as a friend to claimant states and the United States to be a voice of reason.

With the statesmanship skills of our diplomats we can help restore unity in Asean that was shaken in the aftermath of the AMM in Phnom Penh, restore confidence between Asean and China, and reassert Asean’s centrality in regional security matters.

Kuala Lumpur

China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 15
August 3, 2012 By: Ian Storey

China and ASEAN Much Further Apart than the Smiles Suggest  

For more than two decades Beijing has pursued a consistent policy in the South China Sea composed of two main elements: gradually strengthening the country’s territorial and jurisdictional claims while at the same time endeavoring to assure Southeast Asian countries of its peaceful intentions. Recent moves by China to bolster its maritime claims have brought the first element into sharp relief, while reassurances of benign intent have, however, been in short supply. Indeed, far from assuaging Southeast Asian concerns regarding its assertive behavior, China has fuelled them by brazenly exploiting divisions within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to further its own national interests.

China Hardens Its Stance

Commentaries in China’s state-run media analyzing the South China Sea issue have become markedly less conciliatory. Opinion pieces highlight several new themes in China’s official line. One theme is that China’s territory, sovereignty as well as its maritime rights and interests increasingly are being challenged by Southeast Asian nations and Japan in the South and East China Seas. China’s response, it is argued, should be to uphold its claims more vigorously, increase its military presence in contested waters, and, if necessary, be prepared to implement coercive measures against other countries. As one commentary notes “Cooperation must be in good faith, competition must be strong, and confrontation must be resolute” (Caixin, July 13).

Another theme is that, while China has shown restraint, countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam have been pursuing provocative and illegal actions in a bid to “plunder” maritime resources such as hydrocarbons and fisheries which China regards as its own (China Daily, July 30).

A third theme is that Manila and Hanoi continue to encourage U.S. “meddling” in the South China Sea and that the United States uses the dispute as a pretext to “pivot” its military forces toward Asia (Global Times, July 11). To reverse these negative trends, Chinese commentators have urged the government to adopt more resolute measures toward disputed territories and maritime boundaries. Nationalist sentiment, they argue, demands no less.

Recent measures undertaken by the Chinese authorities do indeed suggest a more hard-line position. Ominously, some of the initiatives have included a strong military element, presumably as a warning to the other claimants that China is ready to play hardball.

Perhaps the most noteworthy attempt by China to bolster its jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea was the raising of the administrative status of Sansha from county to prefecture level in June. Sansha originally was established in 2007 as an administrative mechanism to “govern” the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank and the Spratly Islands. Sansha’s elevation was an immediate response to a law passed on June 21  by Vietnam’s national assembly, which reiterated Hanoi’s sovereignty claims to the Paracels and Spratlys. Both Vietnam and China protested the other’s move as a violation of their sovereignty (Bloomberg, June 21). Less than a month later, Sansha’s municipal authorities elected a mayor and three deputy mayors and China’s Central Military Commission authorized the establishment of a garrison for “managing the city’s national defense mobilization, military reserves and carrying out military operations (Xinhua, July 20).

Earlier, in late June, China’s Defense Ministry announced it had begun “combat ready” patrols in the Spratly Islands to “protect national sovereignty and [China’s] security development interests” (Reuters, June 28). Embarrassingly for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, however, on July 13, one of its frigates ran aground on Half Moon Shoal, 70 miles west of the Philippine island of Palawan and within the Philippines 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The frigate was refloated within 24 hours, suggesting that other PLA Navy vessels were nearby when the incident occurred. These developments provide further evidence of the growing militarization of the dispute.

China also has moved to undercut the claims and commercial activities of the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea in other ways.

In June, the state-run China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) invited foreign energy companies to bid for exploration rights in nine blocks in the South China Sea. The blocks lie completely within Vietnam’s EEZ and overlap with those offered for development to foreign energy corporations by state-owned PetroVietnam. Accordingly, Hanoi vigorously protested CNOOC’s tender (Bloomberg, June 27). More importantly the blocks are located at the edge of China’s nine-dash line map and seem to support the argument that Beijing interprets the dashes as representing the outermost limits of its “historic rights” in the South China Sea. Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), however, coastal states are not entitled to “historic rights” on the high seas. It is therefore unlikely that any of the major energy giants will bid for CNOOC’s blocks—although smaller companies may do so if only to curry favor with Beijing with a view to landing more lucrative contracts down the road. If, however, exploration does move forward in any of the nine blocks, a clash between Vietnamese and Chinese coast guard vessels will become a very real possibility.

On the issue of ownership of Scarborough Shoal, scene of a tense standoff between Chinese and Philippines fishery protection vessels in May-June, China position remains uncompromising. At the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in July, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi restated China’s sovereignty claims to the shoal, rejected the notion that it was disputed and accused Manila of “making trouble” (Xinhua, July 13). According to the Philippine foreign ministry, Chinese trawlers―protected by Chinese paramilitary vessels—continue to fish in waters close to Scarborough Shoal in contravention of a bilateral accord whereby both sides agreed to withdraw their vessels [1].

Following the ARF, China kept up the pressure on the Philippines. In mid-July, it dispatched a flotilla of 30 fishing trawlers to the Spratlys escorted by the 3,000-ton fisheries administration vessel Yuzheng 310 (Xinhua, July 15). The trawlers collected coral and fished near Philippine-controlled Pag-asa Island and Chinese-controlled Mischief and Subi Reefs (Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 27). The Philippine authorities monitored the situation but took no action.

The Phnom Penh Debacle

In the past, after China has undertaken assertive actions in the South China Sea it has tried to calm Southeast Asia’s jangled nerves. At the series of ASEAN-led meetings in Phnom Penh in mid-July, however, Chinese officials offered virtually no reassurances to their Southeast Asian counterparts. Worse still, China seems to have utilized its influence with Cambodia to scupper attempts by ASEAN to address the problem, causing a breakdown in ASEAN unity.

In the final stages of the annual meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers (known as the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting or AMM), the Philippines and Vietnam wanted the final communiqué to reflect their serious concerns regarding the Scarborough Shoal incident and the CNOOC tender. They were supported by Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand who felt that ASEAN should speak with one voice. Cambodia—which holds the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN and has close political and economic ties with China— objected because, in the words of Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, “ASEAN cannot be used as a tribunal for bilateral disputes” (Straits Times, July 22). Attempts by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to reach a compromise on the wording were unsuccessful and for the first time in its 45-year history the AMM did not issue a final communiqué.

The fallout from the AMM was immediate and ugly. Natalegawa labelled ASEAN’s failure to reach agreement “irresponsible” and that the organization’s centrality in the building of the regional security architecture had been put at risk (Straits Times, July 16). Singapore’s Foreign Minister, K. Shanmugam described the fiasco as a “sever dent” in ASEAN’s credibility (Straits Times, July 14). Cambodia and the Philippines blamed the failure on each other. Cambodia was pilloried by the regional press for its lack of leadership and for putting its bilateral relationship with China before the overall interests of ASEAN. One analyst alleged  Cambodian officials had consulted with their Chinese counterparts during the final stages of talks to reach an agreement on the communiqué [2]. China’s Global Times characterized the outcome of the AMM as a victory for China, which does not think ASEAN is an appropriate venue to discuss the dispute, and a defeat for the Philippines and Vietnam (Global Times, July 16).

A few days after the AMM, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono dispatched his foreign minister to five Southeast Asian capitals in an effort to restore ASEAN unity. Natalegawa’s shuttle diplomacy resulted in an ASEAN foreign minister’s statement of July 20 on “ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea” [3]. The six points, however, broke no new ground and merely reaffirmed ASEAN’s bottom line consensus on the South China Sea. In response to the joint statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said it would work with ASEAN to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 21).

One of the six points calls for the early conclusion of a code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, but the Phnom Penh debacle has made that target highly doubtful.

Although China agreed to discuss a CoC with ASEAN in November 2011, Beijing always has been lukewarm about such an agreement, preferring instead to focus on implementing the DoC. Undeterred, earlier this year ASEAN began drawing up guiding principles for a code and in June agreed on a set of “proposed elements.” While much of the document is standard boiler plate, there are two aspects worthy of attention.

The first is that ASEAN calls for a “comprehensive and durable” settlement of the dispute, a phrase that seems to repudiate Deng Xiaoping’s proposal that the parties should shelve their sovereignty claims and jointly develop maritime resources. Clearly, the four ASEAN claimants have rejected Deng’s formula as it would be tantamount to recognizing China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea atolls.

The second interesting aspect concerns mechanisms for resolving disputes arising from violations or interpretations of the proposed code. The document suggests that disputing parties turn to the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) or dispute resolution mechanisms in UNCLOS. Neither, however, would be of much utility. While the TAC does provide for a dispute resolution mechanism in the form of an ASEAN High Council, this clause has never been invoked due to the highly politicized nature of the High Council and the fact that it cannot issue binding rulings. Moreover, although China acceded to the TAC in 2003, Beijing almost certainly would oppose discussion of the South China Sea at the High Council because it would be outnumbered 10 to 1.

UNCLOS does provide for binding dispute resolution mechanisms, including the submission of disputes to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). China always has rejected a role for the ICJ in resolving the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and, in 2006, China exercised its right to opt out of ITLOS procedures concerning maritime boundary delimitation and military activities.

On July 9, Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying had indicated to ASEAN foreign ministers that China was willing to start talks on a CoC in September. Two days later, however, as ASEAN wrangled over their final communiqué, Foreign Minister Yang seemed to rule this out when he stated discussions could only take place “when the time was ripe” (Straits Times, July 11). At present ASEAN and China are not scheduled to hold any meetings on the CoC, though officials currently are discussing joint cooperative projects under the DoC.

If and when the two sides do sit down to discuss the CoC, it is probable that Beijing will demand all reference to dispute resolution be removed on the grounds that the proposed code is designed to manage tensions only and that the dispute can only be resolved between China and each of the other claimants on a one-on-one basis. Taken together, these developments have dimmed seriously the prospect of China and ASEAN reaching agreement on a viable code of conduct for the South China Sea any time soon. As such, the status quo will continue for the foreseeable future.


  1. “Why There was no ASEAN Joint Communique,” Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, July 19, 2012
  2. Ernest Bower, “China reveals its hand on ASEAN in Phnom Penh,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 20 2012.
  3. “Statement of ASEAN Foreign Ministers on ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea,” Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 20, 2012

Asean has no reason to panic

Asean is younger than its member nations, so teething problems as it continues to mature are no cause for alarm

ASEAN’S set pieces following its meetings have become so predictable as to provoke panic when a blip in the set routine appears unexpectedly.

That happened with the anticipated joint communique following the ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh a week ago. This was the first time a communique was not issued, after disagreement over the text between the Philippines and host Cambodia on Manila’s territorial squabble with Beijing.

That was enough to set tongues wagging, pens wriggling and keyboards clacking about a presumed “turning point” in Asean and even speculation about its imminent demise.

Asean proceedings have traditionally been weighed down by diplomatic gobbledygook just because everyone expects such statements to be issued. What later happens in the conduct of member states, however removed from the spirit and content of the communiques, then becomes quite irrelevant.

Yet the substance of statements issued should be more important than the fact of issuing just any statement. After all, Asean is supposed to be more about political process than mere diplomatic procedure.

Therefore, not issuing a collective statement after this month’s pow wow among foreign ministers is better than issuing a meaningless statement just for the sake of issuing something. It makes no sense to produce a statement in the absence of a joint agreement about what it would say.

As it happened, not issuing a joint communique amounts to an indirect statement on the different positions taken by some members, in this case the hotly disputed claims on island territory between the Philippines (and to some extent Vietnam) and China.

Ironically, the Phnom Penh meeting was supposed to consolidate efforts at establishing an Asean community by 2015, as well as to reaffirm blossoming relations between Asean and China.

It may have failed at delivering either, but simply deviating from the norm by not perpetuating a scripted, choreographed and rehearsed custom regardless of circumstances is not a failure of Asean. Nonetheless, the apparent detour from the objectives of this year’s ministerial meeting was enough to turn surprise into shock for many.

Traditionally criticised for saying little and doing even less with boring predictability, Asean is suddenly seen as risking the unprecedented. Its critics should now make up their mind about the nature of their criticism, because they are beginning to contradict themselves.

The other irony concerns the Asean style itself. The regional organisation has long been assessed less by what it says in communiques than what it leaves unsaid, and understood less by what it does than what it obliquely skirts doing.

Thus going by its record, the decision not to issue a communique may be deemed doubly and traditionally Asean. Yet it was taken to be untypical of Asean.

Cynics predicting doom-and-gloom scenarios for Asean forget that its watchword has always been “resilience”, as supported by its near-half-century record. Asean is made of sterner stuff, to which its experience testifies.

But Asean is also not immune to the pitfalls of complacency. Failure to do what is needed now can escalate current challenges and lead to more problems in the future.

For what it is worth, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono swiftly dispatched Foreign Minister Dr Marty Natalegawa to four Asean capitals, including Kuala Lumpur, to try to cobble together some kind of a belated joint communique.

That may be possible but unlikely, since foreign ministers who refused to be accommodating while together at an official meeting would be even less inclined to compromise when back home. Even if such a statement materialises, it would just be “in absentia” of the assembled ministers, now dispersed, and not a statement “posthumous” of Asean.

Meanwhile, news and commentary about the lack of a communique have overshadowed the issues behind it. And it is not only the absence of a communique that can be seen as untypical of Asean.

Manila and Hanoi had come into the meeting room after a recent diplomatic spat with China over competing territorial claims. Despite the ministerial meeting covering various other matters, the Philippines and Vietnam insisted that their problems with China be included in the text of the joint communique.

Cambodia, as host, refused as it saw this as unbecoming and inappropriate. Only half of the 10 Asean members have disputes over island territory with China, with the dispute in question over Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island involving only one Asean country, the Philippines.

Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario then openly accused his Cambodian counterpart Hor Namhong of “consistently defending China’s interest.” Point number two in being untypically Asean.

The ill will created extends beyond the scope of any Asean conference. Its import and impact have already spread beyond the few countries involved.

No country can claim victory or savour any sense of satisfaction from these developments, because they work to the detriment of all. There is also the additional risk of some countries misreading the situation to even worse effect.

China had a pie in the face when it began the conference, as an Asean dialogue partner, by celebrating the new priority of taking relations with Asean to greater heights. If it is seeking any consolation from a divided Asean, it will find itself gravely mistaken.

The Philippines is also finding that it has fewer “allies” in this imbroglio than it would have liked. Thailand had already warned it would not let bilateral differences with China upset regional ties with Beijing, while a caucus of retired diplomats in Indonesia criticised the Philippines for being “blunt” and “very un-Asean.”

The other Asean countries are not exactly behind Manila, and likewise some Filipino commentators. Even Vietnam, despite its inter-state disputes with China, has always had quieter, positive inter-party ties as fellow communist nations.

In contrast, the Philippines has only a treaty with the US. That can make matters worse through emboldening Manila in rash actions, or initiating major power conflict in the region.

Now President Benigno Aquino III has passed the handling of the issue from del Rosario to Ambassador Sonia Brady in Beijing to handle more diplomatically. A sense of realism may yet dawn after all.

In the meantime, changes in the region include some that question old ideological allegiances. Diplomats and policymakers need to be sensitive to such developments to respond accordingly.

Not only does Vietnam have serious differences with China, Myanmar may also begin to do so on separate bilateral matters. At the same time, Taiwan increasingly feels at one with China over claims on territory disputed by other countries, such as the one with the Philippines.

Beyond all the conflicting claims, some realities remain.

Asean is only 45 years old as a regional organisation in the global community of nations, so more differences between members are likely to appear in future. These should not be a problem as long as they are manageable.

Disputes are also best settled, or can only be settled, through negotiations or arbitration. Souring the atmosphere by making diplomacy difficult only makes things worse for everyone.

With China, it has been said that upping the ante only strengthens the hand of hardliners in Beijing. Most Asean countries are wise enough to steer clear of that approach, however much of a rush it may give some politicians playing to the gallery at home.

Behind The Headlines By BUNN NAGARA

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Investing in better relations

Chinaand Asean edge towards better ties, mostly because of the risk of a deteriorating relationship.


ASEAN and China made moves during the week to upgrade ties, or at least to talk about the prospect of formal deliberations to do so.

The unusually roundabout manner of this, even for Asean diplomacy, was because much of the basis for it is the highly unlikely and delicate one of contested maritime territory in the South China Sea.

All contending parties have had to tread gingerly, with fingers and toes crossed. But other events have also played a role.

Asean countries had already made clear that regardless of disputes with each other or with China, no external party should get involved. It was not difficult thus to put US diplomats on notice.

So when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured South-East Asia this time, with an appearance at the Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh, she talked about economic cooperation rather than a “pivot” to “rebalance” against China. It contrasts with her last foray into this region and another Asean meeting.

However, Clinton’s office also had an official announce that the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands claimed by both China and Japan fell under Article 5 of the US-Japan security treaty. The official declared that the uninhabited islands were under Japan’s jurisdiction, bolstering Tokyo’s claim, and that the US was thus obliged to respond in any conflict.

That made officials in Beijing jump. It also made them seem more conciliatory on the Asean front, in a set of disputes over the Spratly Islands.

China declared on Wednesday that it wanted to strengthen “communication and cooperation” with Asean members with mutual benefit all-round. On the same day at the meeting in Phnom Penh, Thailand announced that it would not allow disputes in the South China Sea to disrupt cooperation between Asean and China.

Thailand is serving as coordinator between Asean and China over the next three years. It is not among the four Asean countries that are claimants to the Spratly Islands along with China and Taiwan.

It has been 10 years since Asean and China signed the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), a non-binding agreement covering “soft issues” like maritime research and environmental protection.

Since then, Asean has wanted to move on to a binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC). But while China is all for the DOC, saying that it had yet to be implemented fully, it wants to move slower on the COC.

It is still unclear how far serious talks will go in creating a new status quo for the contending claims. On present form, despite all the pleasantries and avowed goodwill, any talks at all are unlikely to achieve anything substantial.

For decades, no specific talks had even been envisaged, let alone conducted satisfactorily and concluded successfully. Now differing positions are being taken over the DOC and the COC, which does not help, amid a general feel good feeling about everyone wanting to feel better, which may not get anywhere.

Prof Zhang Yunling is director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at Renmin University in Beijing. The following is part of an exclusive interview he gave during a recent ISIS conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Q. China’s rise has largely been economic; how else will it express its ascendancy in the region and the world?

A. China’s rise has reshaped the region’s economic structure, which has been a very positive development. It will continue to rise, and in other aspects, as well as play an important role.

Compared to the past, there are two differences today. First, it is based on an open economic structure, with close links with other countries, not top-down but in equal partnership as in production networks.

Secondly, there is institutional development, not just gestures as with the old China. There are equal rights, equal treatment of other countries, which are rules-based and multi-layered. We are moving ahead, but it also needs time.

There is greater movement of people, through travel and tourism, and people get to know each other better. There are also more projects for (international) assistance, training and capacity-building.

There is anxiety over China’s military build-up, but it is normal for China to develop its military along with its (economic) development.

One concern is a change in the existing order because China was not a player before. Japan has historical (baggage), the US has been dominant in the past, so there should be a place for China.

Another concern is over dispute settlement: previously there has been cooperative behaviour, now there are bigger armed forces. Yet no other country has so many unsettled disputes as China on both land and sea.

>How do you see China-US ties, today’s most important trans-Pacific bilateral relationship?

This is a very complex matter for China. For others, it is about how to accept a rising China and its role in a positive way.

Germany and Japan before were not bound by factors as China is today: agreements, commitments, shared interests. How China would manage these should not cause other countries to see it as a threat; it is now in a transitional period, without much experience of it.

The US is very important to China in economic terms. So China has to carefully manage relations with the US, to avoid any possible confrontation and seek any possible cooperation.

Both countries have such a close relationship which never occurred before between a rising superpower and an existing superpower. They have to live together and work together.

US technology and its economy are still dominant and important for China. But the US sees China as a threat, and ideologically wants to see China turn into a democratic country.

The US has always tried to make China more like it over the past 100 years, but not successfully – yet it is still trying. US pressure is very clear.

China wants to have its place, and the US has to prepare for that. It is trying to contain China, so China sees this as a threat.

But it’s not a zero-sum game as with the Soviet Union, because of the close interests between the US and China. The door is open, not closed.

> What is the status of China’s proposals to promote military cooperation with South-East Asian countries?

There is now no military cooperation. We should have regular defence ministers’ consultations and exchanges of military personnel.

There should be joint maritime operations for accidents at sea, for example. Also, on non-traditional threats at sea (piracy, terrorism, human trafficking, narcotics, illegal immigration).

There have been exchanges between China and Indonesia, and cooperation between China and Malaysia in producing military equipment.

> How has China’s perception of Asean changed over the years?

China sees the Asean process positively, acknowledging Asean’s role in creating a stable and cooperative region. There is the China-Asean FTA, with other cooperative projects.

All this is quite different from the past.

China hopes Asean can play a stronger role in the region for more cooperation and institution-building. Asean needs to be more united to work cooperatively towards a real Asian century.

Asean can help create a new regional institution. Asia should be a security provider, since there has been too much reliance on outside security providers.

Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara

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Shaken and stirred, Asean ways!

When regional leaders meet, they have a peculiar way of joining hands. The question is why.

THEY stand in a line, cross their arms over the chest and hold the hand of the person on either side of them.

Then, it’s “say cheese” for the photographer.

This is the pose Asean government leaders assume when they take their group shots at the start and end of their conferences.

The Asean way: Asean leaders (from left) Philippine president Benigno Aquino III, Lee, Yingluck, Vietnam’s prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen doing the Asean handshake for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the 20th Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. — AP

It’s a thing that is peculiar to the leaders and senior officials in our region.

As someone observed: “In every Asean group photograph, why must all participants cross their arms in front of their chest in order to hold hands with the adjacent person?

“I think it looks uncomfortable … as if they are trying to change a light bulb by holding it and turning around.

“Why don’t they do it the easy way, letting their arms hang down naturally while holding hands?”

Good question.

A close look at the faces in those shots will often reveal at least one or two with decidedly uncomfortable expressions. Especially among the women.

Men have longer arms, and they don’t have breasts that can get in the way of such contortions.

So, often, the women leaders, who tend to be shorter, too, will have a kind of tight-lipped smile that is similar to the grimace they have when taking a mammogram.

There is a particular photo taken in November 2009 of Asean leaders meeting with US President Barack Obama that is most telling.

Former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo Macapagal, who is really petite, is next to Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong.

She only comes up to his shoulder and she looks like she is holding her breath even though her arms are not really stretched out.

She must be a veteran of such hand-holding because she makes the guys on either side do the stretching.

So it is PM Lee, on her left, who has to extend his hand to hold hers as well as Obama’s on the other side.

As a result, Lee’s arms are so tightly crossed, his tie is almost swallowed up by his jacket.

This tangle of appendages has a name. It’s called the “Asean handshake” although “the grip-and-grin” seems more accurate.

I am unable to determine when this “traditional” handshake started, and by whom, but really, it’s time to put an end to it.

Photos taken at the 20th Asean summit in Phnom Penh last week are again telling.

The taller leaders manage the handshakes better, including Yingluck Shinawatra, who is quite well built. She looks unruffled and elegant.

I wonder if she and other new Asean leaders get coaching on how to do the Asean handshake by their minders.

If not, it can catch a leader by surprise, like what happened to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a 2010 meeting.

There is a YouTube video on how he looked momentarily confused and unsure of how to place his arms when faced with the Asean handshake.

The honest truth: This de rigueur pose for a group shot is not at all flattering.

Inevitably, their suits get squashed, their shoulders are hunched up and, made to stand in a line, these world leaders do not look so worldly nor leader-like.

Rather, they look like school kids forced by their teacher to hold hands to keep them out of mischief.

Now, I am not criticising the act of shaking hands, just this odd form.

The handshake is, after all, a gesture of friendship and goodwill. It didn’t start that way though.

There are many versions of its origins.

A widely accepted one is medieval: When wary strangers met, they patted each other down for hidden weapons.

This evolved to grasping the right hand and shaking it to dislodge a dagger up the sleeve.

Centuries down the line, the handshake is universally used as a friendly gesture. No more checking for sharp objects, but it’s become a gauge of sorts of a person’s character.

Is the handshake firm, limp or bone-crushing?

This greeting was originally a male thing because women usually didn’t carry arms.

It’s a pity that it has since crossed genders as hand contact with men is not really recommended.

My suspicions were confirmed when a male colleague pressed the floor button in the office lift using a piece of tissue.

He admitted this was due to his fear of what male digits can leave on the buttons and other frequently touched surfaces because he knows what men do and don’t do in the loo.

Maybe that’s why Asean women leaders doing the grip-and-grin look so grim. Two hands at one go trapped in male paws. Euuww!

There’s also the risk of catching germs.

According to experts, 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by contact like kissing and … hand shaking.

That’s why the British Olympic Asso­ciation chief medical officer Dr Ian McCurdie suggested banning handshaking in the Games Village in the upcoming London Olympics!

The handshake is on shaky ground in sports for other reasons, too.

Shaking hands before and after a match in several sports – football, tennis and American football – is a cherished ritual to denote good sportsmanship.

Now it has become contentious because the gesture seemed to have regressed to its hostile origins.

The way two sportsmen clasp hands (or refuse to) can be taken as a sign of contempt, disrespect and even aggression, and has led to brawls.

There is an on-going debate on whether to abolish it.

That may take a while to settle. In the meantime, perhaps Asean politicians can take the lead and disband their chest-constricting clasp.

If they want to denote unity and cooperation, how about just linking arms at the elbow?

They will look like a strong chain and look, ma, no hands!

SO AUNTY,SO WHAT BY JUNE H.L.WONG > The writer prefers hugs, nicely described by someone as handshakes from the heart.

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Asean needs to rise to its own loftier level

After nearly 45 years, issues remain for Asean to sort out, ponder over and resolve satisfactorily.

SOME developments have lately resulted in multiple challenges confronting Asean. Chief among these is the lack of understanding of Asean, its origins and its purposes, notably within Asean member countries themselves.

Since its inception in 1967, Asean has tended to avoid calling a spade a spade for reasons of national sensitivities or avoiding controversy. The founding meeting in Bangkok that year was even described as an effort to improve economic relations, even though more serious geopolitical issues such as Indonesia’s relations with Malaysia and Singapore were at stake.

Another reason for the lack of an Asean awareness among Asean peoples is that official proceedings have been dominated and even monopolised by national elites. Even with economic development as a key issue from the beginning, the Asean Business Council took three decades to be established.

Security drill: Cambodian riot police during an exercise to prepare for the upcoming Asean summit in Phnom Penh. Cambodia hosts the 20th Asean Summit next month. — EPA

Social and cultural issues would have to take even longer. Everything had to undergo a laborious process of initial proposal, official consideration, outsourced study (such as an Eminent Persons Group), considered refinement, likely revisions, possible horse trading, formal approval and final adoption.

Even if the entire process is necessary, it could also be expedited. More important yet, parallel processes could occur to dovetail the sequential stages.

That would mean involving more people and agencies than just the heads of government, key ministers and secretariat staff. And that would imply educating, engaging and empowering more people in Asean countries about Asean and its work.

Thus the third reason for the lack of awareness is that little or nothing has been done to inform and involve more people in the region. It might be said that an inherent danger lies in a new generation of Asean citizens growing up under-informed about regional imperatives, except that even the older generation is equally unaware.

Some critics have blamed the custom of consensus-reaching for the plodding pace, but other regional organisations like the EU have not experienced consensualism as a nagging problem. The respective agendas of individual governments, which change quicker and less predictably in some Asean countries than in others, could be a factor.

Nonetheless, Asean’s challenges of economic productivity and competitiveness, geopolitical confidence-building and comfort levels, and socio-cultural peace and stability remain. If anything, developments such as a rising China and India, a resurgent Russia and a revitalised US foreign policy focus on East Asia only make Asean cohesiveness more urgent yet also more fraught.

Asean itself has responded by scheduling an Asean Community by 2015 comprising three pillars: an Economic Community, a Security Community and a Socio-cultural Community. Could this goal be too ambitious, since it had taken 21 years just to convene the third Asean summit?

To help the process along, Malaysia’s Foreign Policy Study Group recently held a roundtable conference on Malaysia-Indonesia/Thailand/Vietnam relations in strengthening Asean Regionalism.

The non-official occasion was intended to complement, not compete with, formal Asean processes and proceedings. Still, a fundamental question asked by some delegates was why the event had to be limited to just four of the 10 Asean countries.

The answer should be obvious: limits on resources including time, and a limited effort such as this had to start somewhere. More Asean countries would participate in future roundtables, and Asean itself provides for small initial efforts in its “10 – x” formula.

There were reasons for the four Asean countries that participated through their retired officials and student representatives: Malaysia and Indonesia as the key founding members of Asean, Thailand as Asean’s origin in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, and Vietnam in generally being regarded as the main country among the newer (CLMV) members.

Another question concerned more frequent use of currency swaps among Asean countries, and the prospect of greater reciprocal use of national currencies in bilateral trade. This would avoid exchange rate costs with the use of a third-country currency such as the dollar or euro.

Some participants thought the membership of 10 countries was sizeable and a likely source of problems in discouraging common agreement. If that is an issue now, it could grow since Timor Leste is poised to be the 11th member, with Papua New Guinea conceivably waiting in the wings.

Some foreign participants credited Malaysia with having achieved considerable success in economic and educational development. The disparities within Asean also mean that each country could excel in a particular area, so it would help all members if a panel of best practices for a variety of sectors could be established, with contributions from each country based on its experiences and achievements.

A reference was made to Asean’s policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member nations by way of a criticism of its seeming inaction. However, that policy as derived from Bandung is a universal principle common to all regional groupings, without which unwelcome and hostile unilateral actions would be rife.

More to the point, Asean appears to have adopted non-intervention to the extent of not even remarking on the travails of a member country even when problems spill over into a neighbouring country. In practice, concepts like “non-intervention” are largely defined by Asean to begin with, so Asean can act without seeing itself as acting.

An underlying but unspoken issue was that Asean countries are fully capable of handling the problems within and between them. There is no basis for major power intervention, since that would unduly complicate and compound the original problem.

Cross-border issues are routinely managed, while rival maritime claims linger. The only enduring problem is an inability to form an all-Asean military force, even if that is desirable.

To help boost Asean awareness, Asean scholarships, student exchanges, an Asean Day in August, a Visit Asean Year promoting the region as a tour package, and a popular talent-entertainment programme appealing to young people are possibilities. But until today, even an Asean lane at airport immigration counters as proposed by a former Malaysian foreign minister more than 20 years ago has still not taken off.

In reshaping an Asean for the times, its basic ingredients of peace, freedom, neutrality, amity and cooperation need to be maintained while addressing current needs and challenges. But whether there is any Asean leader today with the requisite regional vision is still very much an open question.

Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara 

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