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Experts call for joint efforts to address South China Sea issue

By YANG HAN in Hong Kong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-01-04 09:39
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Ren'ai Reef. [File photo/]

China and ASEAN members should work together to address the South China Sea issue calmly by focusing on cooperation among the claimants, experts say.

The South China Sea is the most complex and sensitive issue in the Asia-Pacific region, and it has become a stage for major-power competition, said Chheang Vannarith, former president of Asian Vision Institute, a think tank based in Phnom Penh.

"Addressing this in a peaceful way is a matter of necessity. It's not a matter of choice for ASEAN and China," said Chheang, adding that a new narrative for the issue should be built by focusing on cooperation among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China and claimant states.

The past year marked the 10th anniversary of China's proposal to foster a closer China-ASEAN community with a shared future and the 20th anniversary of China's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia.

In 2022, China and ASEAN celebrated the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

In a joint statement, they recognized the benefits of having the South China Sea as "a sea of peace, friendship, and cooperation", and appreciated the progress in the Code of Conduct, or COC, negotiations. They also reaffirmed that the adoption of the COC in the future would further promote regional peace and stability.

Although negotiations on the COC have been slow, Chheang said the process is on the right track as it can highlight common interests and provide a political view for all sides to maintain peace and stability.

"The claimants hold the key position and responsibility of not provoking the situation," Chheang said. "If you invite an external power, you need to ask whether that would help you solve the problem or further complicate the problem."

It is obvious that moves by external parties, such as the United States, to stir up conflict between China and ASEAN over the South China Sea issue are part of an encirclement strategy against China, Chheang said.

Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, vice-president for external affairs at Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute in Manila, said, "The United States is obviously keen on maintaining, preserving and pursuing its hegemony in the waters of the South China Sea and the broader Asia-Pacific region."

The US is using the Philippines as a pawn and proxy in the South China Sea dispute as part of its strategic competition and containment strategy against China, Malindog-Uy said.

The US meddling can also complicate diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes peacefully, she said, noting that it undermines ASEAN's unity and centrality in managing the South China Sea issue.

"It is crucial for all parties involved, particularly the Philippines and China, to pursue diplomatic channels and peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms to manage and mitigate the risks brought about by the heightening tensions in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China," she said.

In the case of Vietnam, the territorial dispute with China over the South China Sea is a historical problem, but this does not mean it cannot be resolved, said Nguyen Vinh Quang, vice-president of the Vietnam-China Friendship Association and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic Studies and International Relations Development in Hanoi.

"It is possible to resolve the issue, but it will take time," Quang said.

Noting that it is important to uphold the principle of maintaining stability, Quang said the two countries should resolve the issue through consultations and exercise restraint to prevent the situation from getting out of control.

"It is not only a matter of regional security but also the security of both countries as we both need stability to promote development," Quang said. "We should resolve the issue through a peaceful and friendly manner."

Lasting resolution

In a joint statement issued on Dec 13, China and Vietnam reached an agreement on seeking a lasting resolution to maritime disputes, which is mutually acceptable and conforms to the agreement on the basic principles guiding the settlement of sea-related matters between China and Vietnam as well as international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Xinhua News Agency reported.

The statement was issued during a state visit to Vietnam on Dec 12-13 by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and Chinese president.

Chheang said China and ASEAN need a shared vision and commitment when it comes to the South China Sea issue, and can continue their nontraditional security cooperation to narrow the differences and gradually work toward the COC.

Other areas of cooperation include environmental cooperation, fishery and piracy, which can help elevate mutual confidence, Chheang said.

Noting that there is a need for a strategic shift in resolving differences over the South China Sea, Malindog-Uy said such a move needs to have a long-term perspective filled with goodwill and pragmatism, while moving away from a Western-oriented confrontational way of resolving disputes to a more Asian way of dispute resolution.

"The South China Sea should be treated as a zone of peace, cooperation and joint development," said Malindog-Uy, adding that the issue should not be a stumbling block to bilateral relations.

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