Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: South China Sea: What Roles for ASEAN and the ARF? Carlyle A. Thayer July 9, 2012

[client name deleted] Now, the ARF is meeting in Cambodia. The South China Sea (East Sea) is still a hot topic, especially between Philippines vs China, also between China and Vietnam. How could ARF solve anything about East Sea issue and what are the roles of ASEAN, especially Cambodia as ASEAN’s Chair? ANSWER: The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is a security dialogue forum. When it was set up it was envisaged that it would go through three phases of development: confidence-building measures, preventive diplomacy and “elaboration to approaches to conflict.” When it became too difficult to tell what was the difference between a confidence building measure and preventive diplomacy, the ARF agreed these could go in tandem. The ARF is still at the confidence building measures stage. The ARF makes no real decisions. Nothing the ARF decides is compulsory it is left up to each member to respond how they see fit. It is up to the ASEAN Chair to issue a Chairman’s Summary after the ARF has concluded to indicate what issues were raised. If matters are particularly controversial or if there is a lack of consensus it is up to the discretion of the Chair how to handle these issues. Cambodia, as ASEAN Chair, is likely to downplay any disagreement and paper over differences in the Chair’s statement unless other ASEAN members bring pressure to bear. The ARF operates on the basis of consensus. Even though China does not want the East Sea to be discussed in a multilateral forum, it cannot prevent other foreign ministers from raising this issue. No doubt the ARF will reach some general consensus that parties to the disputes in the South China Sea should exercise restraint and not use force or the threat of force to resolve their differences over sovereignty. All parties will be urged to use international law, and the UN Convention on Law of the Sea to settle their disputes. The ARF is also likely to support the negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC). There will nothing new to come out of this meeting. ASEAN Senior Officials has reached agreement on the key issues to be included in the draft Code of Conduct (COC). The ASEAN Foreign Ministers will meet today and

2 review this document. They can approve it or revise it. ASEAN and China has already agreed to begin their negotiations on the final COC this week in Phnom Penh. The best Vietnam and the Philippines can hope for is to obtain support from several of their fellow ASEAN members and support from the majority of the dialogue partners. The dialogue partners are likely to urge China to act with restraint. Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: What Roles for ASEAN and the ARF?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 9, 2012.

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