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Thayer South China Sea: Chinese Foreign Minister Mends Fences

Thayer South China Sea: Chinese Foreign Minister Mends Fences

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An asessment of the visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia.
An asessment of the visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister to Southeast Asia.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Aug 17, 2012
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Background Brief:South China Sea: ChineseForeign Minister Mends FencesCarlyle A. ThayerAugust 16, 2012
[client name deleted]We some questions regarding the territorial disputes in the South China Sea andrequest your assessment of the following issues.
Q1. What are the implications of Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi’s
visit to three ASEAN member states, in terms of dispute resolution in the SouthChina Sea?
ANSWER: China’s Foreign Minister Yang was basically on a fence
-mending trip toclear the air after allegations that China had used its influence with Cambodia toblock the joint communique of the 45
th
ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM).Minister Yang strongly pushed for progress on the DOC but not the COC.Q2. Will Vietnam and the Philippines be isolated in ASEAN as a result of= this visit?ANSWER: The issue of implementing the DOC is a matter between all ten ASEANmembers and China. Whatever the disagreements at the AMM in Phnom Penh, allASEAN members want to see progress on the DOC. So far it has been all talk aboutcooperative activities with no practical implementation of any projects. Vietnam andthe Philippines received strong support in Phnom Penh from Indonesia, Malaysia andSingapore. China will have to take this into account.Q3. During recent weeks, the
US Department of State has opposed China’s actions in
the South China Sea twice, regarding the establishment of Sansha military garrison,
and for ‘dominating and conquering’ ASEAN member states. Do you think th
isfrequency is unusual? What is the message that the US wants to convey with thesestatements?ANSWER: The U.S. apparently has concluded that China has decided to take a harderstance on the South China Sea issue. The role of the Central Military Commission(CMC) in approving the garrison at Sansha is one indication. China is undergoing apowershift in its leadership. It is clear that Hu Jintao will relinquish his posts as partyleader and state president. But he wants to retain hold of the chairmanship of theCMC. Xi Jinping who w
ill take up Hu’s posts also wants to chair the CMC. This mayexplain China’s harder line.
 It is unusual for the State Department to issue two statements on the South ChinaSea coming so close together. The U.S. wants to deter the Chinese from taking
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
 
2
aggressive action and it also would like to influence the thinking of the new Chineseleadership. The U.S. is trying to convey the message to the new leaders that whenthey come to office there is much to be gained by cooperating with the United Statesand that assertive actions in the South China Sea will complicate matters.Q4. What are the benefits and disadvantages that Vietnam will bear as a result of theUS statements?ANSWER: All U.S. statements opposing force and intimidation in the South China Seamay act as a deterrent to the Chinese and restrain their actions. This will benefit
Vietnam because it is in Vietnam’s interest to have a stable and peaceful regional
environment to develop. The disadvantage is that the U.S. statements will reinforcea view in China that the U.S. actions only encourage Vietnam and the Philippines tostand up to China. China fears containment and encirclement and they might viewU.S. statements as confirming this view.
Q5. The ASEAN’s
Six-point principles on the South China Sea do not appear to beable to bridge the gap between different
member states’ stances in the
Association.How do you assess the prospect of a Code of Conduct by 2012, as planned by ASEANearlier?ANSWER: There are three separate issues here. First, ASEAN foreign ministersapproved the key elements of the COC on July 9
th
. Second, the failure to issue a jointcommunique came after. This disagreement was not over fundamentals but over
whether or not to include mention of Scarborough Shoal and China’s letting of oil
leases in Vietna
m’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Third, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister
Marty Natalegawa intervened to do what Cambodia, as ASEAN Chair, should have
done, and forged consensus. ASEAN’s Six Principles reaffirm what has already been
decided. It restores a semblance of ASEAN unity to its members, to China and to
ASEAN’s other dialogue partners. The ASEAN statement put Indonesia’s reputation
at stake and China will have to take this into account. ASEAN will now try to get theASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the COC to resume discussions at the formallevel. This will be the occasion for ASEAN to table officially its key elements for Chinato review. In my view, the pressure will be on China to appear conciliatory andengage in diplomacy with ASEAN members. China could offer a gift to Cambodia if anagreement on the COC were signed at the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh inNovember. More importantly, if China does not play the diplomatic game it will beconfronted by the other dialogue partners in November, especially at the East AsiaSummit. And if China drags its feet on the COC it might prompt ASEAN to reach itsown agreement on the COC and open it to accession by its dialogue partners. Thiswould isolate China. Note that when Foreign Minister Yang visited Malaysia, theMalaysian Foreign Minister called for ASEAN members to settle their maritimedisputes first. The longer China remains uncooperative the more unified the coalitionof nations opposing China will become.

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