Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thailand wields leverage in sea dispute

Published: 19/08/2014 at 06:30 AM
Newspaper section: News

The Asean meetings in Myanmar last week were dominated by the South China Sea dispute, which has seriously strained Asean-China relations.

Protesters in the Philippines thrust mock missiles towards the Chinese consulate in Manila's financial district. Thailand is facing a tough job in bringing conflicting countries to agree on a code of conduct over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. (AP photo)
Conflicting parties delivered a war of words in a series of fresh provocations in the South China Sea. As expected, the Philippines used the Asean forum to lobby for its "triple-action plan" to deal with the problem, saying it could help ease the tension.
The proposals include using United Nations arbitration to end the territorial dispute.
China, as expected, immediately rejected the proposal while other Asean members expressed serious concern over the deteriorating situation.
However, fairly good news emerged from the Asean-China ministerial meetings when the parties' foreign ministers agreed to speed up the talks leading to the draft of the code of conduct (COC) relating to South China Sea. In these talks, Thailand is playing a key role.
As country coordinator of Asean-China relations, Thailand is responsible for all procedures relating to the region’s ties with China, including the COC.
This responsibility will end next July when Thailand completes its three-year term as coordinator.
Even though Asean and China have endorsed the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, Asean insists upon the need for a legally binding code of conduct to effectively manage the conflict. A protocol agreement is only a toothless tiger.
Although Asean wants a COC agreement sooner than later, progress has been slow.
The South China Sea is a serious security issue that needs to be resolved to avoid further confrontation. The recent standoff between China and Vietnam in May has shown the risks are getting more real.
How can Thailand contribute to Asean before its term ends?
Although the country is under the rule of a military junta, the change of guard will not affect its role as country coordinator given its good relations with China and understanding of other Asean members.
Yet time is running out, and Thailand needs to produce action to affirm its role in Asean and regain the confidence of the international community.
Thailand will host the meeting between senior Asean and Chinese officials to draft the South China Sea code of conduct in October. The Foreign Ministry’s permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkoew expects firm progress in the meeting.
Indeed, the drafting of the COC must start now, even though some fear it may take more than a decade to complete it.
Thailand faces a big challenge in bringing all parties concerned to the drafting table.
The four claimant states in Asean — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — remain firm in their ownership assertions. Manila and Vietnam, in particular, are not shy about confrontation.
Nor is China. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi talked about the comprehensive ties with Asean in soft but sharp words, saying "China is ready to listen to the proposals from all parties, but those proposals must be clear, objective and constructive".
In short, Thailand is facing a tough job to design a way out of the South China Sea conflicts.
But the country does have factors working in its favour.
The relationship between Thailand and China is currently in a good stage, particularly since the coup when the military received support from Asia’s powerhouse while getting condemnation from the West.
The country also has generally good relationships with other Asean countries, which is important to build trust.
Thailand, therefore, could use its diplomatic strength to ease tension in the region by bringing China and other claimant states to the COC drafting table.
It is a big challenge. But any success will effectively restore Thailand’s diplomatic standing in the international community.

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