Tuesday, May 5, 2015

We need another name for the South China Sea

We need another name for the South China Sea

The latest Asean summit made no progress on defusing the potentially explosive territory disputes

Asean leaders turned their focus on territory disputes in the South China Sea at their 26th summit last week, but the potential flashpoints are no nearer to being defused after the talks in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi Island.

Indeed, it is hard to be optimistic about a resolution anytime soon - or at all - with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noting that the disputes have grown more serious in the past year.

China, as the most powerful claimant, is increasingly adversarial despite years of patient diplomacy by Asean. Recent moves by Beijing to assert its claim have raised tensions further. Its relocation of an oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam, sparking unusually harsh protests from Hanoi, along with the ramming of rival fishing vessels and the "accidental" cutting of a survey ship's cables reflect a growing pattern of muscular response from China which is troubling the whole region, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.

From jawjaw to pourpour

The latest and most provocative of China's actions is the rapid land reclamation on submerged reefs in the Spratlys to create manmade islands - some big enough for airstrips for fighter jets. China is clearly preparing to project its hard power from the heart of the contested waters. This highly controversial buildup, visible in satellite images, goes against the spirit of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which requires claimants not to engage in activities that would raise tensions. The DOC, signed in 2002, is to pave the way to a binding Code of Conduct (COC) but this key overarching treaty seems elusive or glacial at best, as Beijing continues to drag its feet in negotiation.

By continuing to build on disputed outcrops, it appears that China is shifting its stance - to paraphrase Winston Churchill - from "jawjaw" to "pourpour". Asean secretarygeneral Le Luong Minh recently described it as a move to change the status quo. The islandbuilding is a gamechanger which will doubtless complicate the search for a resolution to the South China Sea disputes.

In the meantime, China will grow stronger economically and militarily while Southeast Asia could become increasingly fragile and quarrelsome, as the pressures on members' sovereignty create internal fissures. Serious cracks over South China Sea disputes surfaced in 2012, when Asean for the first time in its history failed to issue a joint communique at its annual meeting. Since then, fears of a repeat of Cambodia 2012 have clouded the regional bloc.

The South China Sea disputes have exposed Asean's vulnerabilities. The once impressive image of regional unity and cohesiveness has been punctured. As China plays to its strength, some Asean memberstates will again be tempted to prioritise their national interest over Asean solidarity.

Asean unity is also under threat as China shifts towards chequebook diplomacy - leveraging on its massive reserves to win friends and some say - buy influence. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a classic case of this turning point in China's diplomatic game. Southeast Asian states are now facing this twofront push by China - a smiling dragon on the economic track dishing out AIIBlinked infrastructure funding, even as it whips a nasty tail on the South China Sea disputes. It will be tough for some memberstates - especially the economically weaker ones - to withstand this carrotandstick approach from China.

What can be done: Three challenges

Asean has to think hard as it faces at least three critical challenges. The first is how to manage the South China Sea disputes such that these are resolved without undermining Asean cohesiveness.

To this end, a proposal by Carl Thayer, a longtime observer of the South China Sea issue, may be worth considering as a first step to the longdelayed COC with China. Thayer has proposed thatAsean signs its own Code of Conduct Treaty for Southeast Asia's Maritime Commons. Individual memberstates should resolve their territorial and maritime disputes with other members, thus strengthening Asean solidarity.

The second challenge is how to deter future aggression by China in the seas while the region pursues deeper economic ties with Beijing. It would be timely to promote Asean's maritime cooperation with trading partners that have stakes in the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Such maritime cooperation could take the form of Asean patrols in the South China Sea with the United States and, later, with countries like Japan and South Korea. 

Southeast Asia Sea?

The third challenge is how to defuse, on a longterm basis, the South China Sea disputes at the mindshare level. Perhaps the time has come for the South China Sea to be renamed. One appropriate alternative name is the Southeast Asia Sea. The South China Sea was previously called the Champa Sea after the seventh century kingdom of Champa in today's Vietnam. The point is, it was not always known as the South China Sea. Apparently, a petition to change the name to the Southeast Asia Sea has already been started.

The Philippines has also taken a similar step by calling it the West Philippine Sea. "When people keep referring to the South China Sea, there is a subliminal message that this sea belongs to a country whose name appears in the name," says a Philippine Armed Forces spokesman. The online petition, by a Vietnamese foundation, kicked off in 2010 with at least 10,000 supporters from 76 countries, addressed to the presidents and prime ministers of 11 Southeast Asian states as well as the United Nations and several international organisations.

A peopledriven initiative like this is in keeping with the region's vision - emphasised by current Chairman, Malaysia - of a "peopleoriented, peoplecentred Asean". It would be most appropriate if this initiative grows to become a collective aspiration of the 600 million people of Asean and not just its 10 governments.

Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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