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ABN # 65 648 097 123
Background Briefing: ASEAN Summit: Myanmar and the South China Sea Carlyle A. Thayer April 4, 2012
[client name deleted] 1. Are you surprised that Myanmar and the South China Sea were major topics for discussion at the 20th ASEAN Summit? How important are they for regional stability and unity? ANSWER: ASEAN Summits consist of a formal meeting and an informal leaders retreat. Topical issues always catch the lime light over the mundane bureaucratic process of building ASEAN interconnectivity, creating an ASEAN community, etc. No I am not surprised. ASEAN has long supported political reform in Myanmar and agreed that it could become ASEAN Chair in 2014. Now that the by‐elections have taken place ASEAN will be emboldened to press the EU and the US to ease up if not drop sanctions entirely. Getting Myanmar back in the fold and on a reformist path is a major contribution to regional security. The South China Sea will be a continuing saga and I am not surprised it received prominent attention. ASEAN is divided. This is an important security issue for the claimant states, Vietnam and the Philippines in particular. But is is also an important issue for those states that do not wish to see major power rivalry intrude into regional affairs. Cambodia belongs to the mainland school that does not want to confront China. Continued ASEAN disunity is a threat to regional security as it will only invite China to take advantage at moments of it choosing. 2. The ASEAN leaders, according to Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, disagreed over China joining ASEAN in shaping a code of conduct (a move Cambodia was pushing for) for the sea. Is this surprising, considering the priorvisit by President Hu Jintao? ANSWER: This is an example of trying to balance ASEAN centrality with its relations with China. Last November Indonesia's foreign minister indicated that ASEAN discussions on a code of conduct had taken place and once consensus had been reached China would be asked to join in. China has tried to jump the queue and get involved at an earlier stage to shape the COC to its own interests. Cambodia's actions reflect the views
mainland states that prefer a 'softly softly' non‐confrontational approach towards China. 3. Do you think ASEAN can reach a consensus on the South China Sea, or are too many competing interests at stake? ANSWER: Yes ASEAN can reach consensus, that is what it does best. But the main question is whether ASEAN consensus will effectively address how China interacts with the claimant states in the South China Sea. The idea of a Code of Conduct was to prevent new occupation of unoccupied rocks and to curb incidents such as the aggressive confrontations between China Marine Surveillance and Fishery Enforcement vessels with oil exploration ships and local fishermen, respectively. The real danger is that ASEAN has a proclivity for putting on a good song and dance routine. In other words, when the tenth anniversary of the DOC comes round later this year ASEAN will produce a COC that is more symbolic than real. The original DOC was signed in Cambodia and if the COC is unveiled in Phnom Penh this year on its tenth anniversary it will be a moment pregnant with symbolism. All the while China aims to keep up negotiations with ASEAN to cut out the United States, and to prevent agreement on anything that would bind China in exercising jurisdiction in the South China Sea; after all China has declared it has" indisputable sovereignty over the island and adjacent waters."