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East Sea: Little movement as ASEAN Summit approaches

Released at: 10:51, 04/09/2016

East Sea: Little movement as ASEAN Summit approaches

Photos: Viet Tuan

No major moves or statements on the East Sea are expected before the ASEAN Summit in Laos in early September.

by Murray Hiebert, CSIS

I think for now the US is satisfied with the Philippines’ efforts to explore with China ways to resolve the East Sea (South China Sea) dispute. This will provide a way to test China’s attitudes in the wake of the Arbitral Tribunal ruling on July 12 and explore whether any compromises are possible.

I don’t think this needs to impact on US-Philippines relations, at least not in the short run. Washington has long recognized that the Philippines’ new president wants to seek to improve relations with Beijing and seek more balanced ties between the US and China.

For now, at least, this is the best way to seek to resolve the dispute with China in the East Sea. As we have seen, ASEAN is divided on the dispute, with some countries closer to China’s position than that of the Philippines, Vietnam, and the US, so a unified ASEAN stance on the dispute and negotiations with China would be impossible.

Role of ASEAN and the US

I think ASEAN should encourage the Philippines and China to seek to resolve their dispute. Of course, if China refuses to negotiate or compromise in the wake of the Arbitral Tribunal ruling I would expect negotiations to break down fairly quickly, say within about six months. Then the disputing countries, including China, Vietnam, and the Philippines, will be back to square one.

Not overnight, but over time I’m hopeful that China will begin to revise its earlier hardline policies on the maritime dispute.

For now the US should do nothing. Washington has to give the talks a little time. So far the two sides have had one very general low-key meeting. I’m sure it will take months for the two to feel each other out and spell out each side’s demands.

It’s not even certain the two sides will have another meeting before the East Asia Summit in Vientiane in early September. I’m not sure we will be able to detect any trend in the bilateral talks before the US presidential elections in November this year.

Vietnam: Wait and see

I think there might be some merit for Vietnam in exploring whether China has changed any of its thinking about the East Sea following the court ruling in July. On the other hand, Vietnam might want to wait to see how Beijing treats Manila before pursuing its own overtures.

The ruling gives China an opportunity to reset relations with its neighbors. If, however, China takes other moves to try to pressure its Southeast Asian neighbors by placing military airplanes on the reclaimed islands or declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), then I think ASEAN needs to prepare for a long, drawn-out dispute over the sea.

Generally, the East Sea looks pretty quiet now and has been so since the ruling in July. We’ll have to see whether this atmosphere continues after the East Asia Summit in September. Some observers believe China will continue its quiet stance in preparation for elections in the US in early November to avoid becoming an issue in what is already a fairly tense and unusual election campaign.

But what does China do after that? Does it look for ways to reduce tensions in the East Sea or launch some more assertive actions to press its neighbors to accommodate to Beijing’s control over the East Sea? These are questions that will be answered in the weeks ahead.

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