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Southeast Asian Leaders to Go Soft on China Over Disputed Sea

FILE - Royal Australian Navy HMAS Adelaide cruises alongside landing crafts with Philippine Marines and Australian troops as they conduct a joint Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise off Subic Bay in northwestern Philippines.
FILE - Royal Australian Navy HMAS Adelaide cruises alongside landing crafts with Philippine Marines and Australian troops as they conduct a joint Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise off Subic Bay in northwestern Philippines.

China and a powerful bloc of countries in Southeast Asia are likely to touch on a deep maritime dispute when their heads of state meet next month, but analysts say it will be without language that would offend an increasingly respected Beijing.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet Chinese officials Nov. 10-14 in Manila at meetings chaired by the Philippines – a friend of Beijing over the past year – and per convention aimed at building consensus rather than airing differences.

Analysts expect statements from the meetings to note this dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea, Asia's stickiest maritime issue, without pointing fingers.

“I think it would be mentioned, but it would be very general language calling on all sides to exercises restraints,” said Oh Ei Sun, international studies instructor at Singapore Nanyang University.

Since 2010 Beijing has angered four Southeast Asian countries by expanding its coast guard and military presence in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that’s valued for fisheries and fuel reserves. Exclusive economic zones of ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines overlap with China’s claim to more than 90 percent of the sea.

One reason for lack of barbs next month would be a deal in the works after years of failed cooperation efforts. Foreign ministers from China and ASEAN agreed in August to a framework code of conduct that would sidestep sovereignty issues to focus on avoiding mishaps at sea.

The code had been stuck for half a decade largely due to China’s resistance. Then China’s occupation of a disputed shoal in 2012 prompted the Philippines to seek world court arbitration. Since the court’s verdict of July 2016 against the legal basis for Chinese maritime claims, Beijing has sought to get along better with individual Southeast Asian states in part by offering largess from its massive economy.

ASEAN and China are expected to dive into the substance of the code of conduct next year.

Chance to reach a real deal

China historically avoids negotiations with blocs of countries, which compromise its bargaining power. ASEAN’s combined population is 630 million and many member nations enjoy U.S. military support.

China prefers to call the code of conduct talks “consultations” or “discussions” to avoid the more formal sounding term “negotiations,” said Carl Thayer, Southeast Asia-specialized emeritus professor at The University of New South Wales in Australia. Beijing also put a condition on the framework that lets it back out, he said.

China may be urging ASEAN not to let the United States or any other outside power get involved in the dispute while code-of-conduct talks proceed, Thayer said.

“The Chinese statement had this little caveat ‘as long as conditions are permitting,’ meaning that if the U.S. does something provocative they (China) could not do it and that was a way of putting pressure on ASEAN to tell the U.S. to keep quiet,” he said.

But experts say ASEAN and China must acknowledge the maritime dispute next month.

"ASEAN always touches on the South China Sea,” Thayer said. “It’s a creature of habit. They welcome progress.”

Economic ties already improved

Vietnam and the Philippines, once the “most aggressive states” among the Southeast Asian maritime claimants, had already mellowed their stances toward China since the world court verdict, said Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.

Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a friendly visit to Beijing and received Chinese pledges of $24 billion in development-related aid.

Vietnam, though it still scuffles with China over undersea oil exploration sites, pledged with the other side in May to boost maritime cooperation, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The pledge followed Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s meeting in China with the host's Premier Le Keqiang.

Brunei and Malaysia, which had prized economic ties with China even before the world court arbitration, seldom publicize views on Beijing’s maritime activities.

“The South China Sea issue is already gone,” Liu said. “The Philippines and Vietnam are the two most aggressive claimant states. Obviously no other country can say anything about that.”

China had caught the attention of the other countries since 2010 by reclaiming land to build artificial islands, some apparently for military use. Passage of Chinese coast guard ships and deployment of oil rigs have further worried the Southeast Asian countries.