Winds of Change in the South China Sea

A sea change, so to speak, is coming to the South China Sea dispute, the years-long debate over China’s claim to 80 percent of the sea and adjacent waters.

This year, Brunei, the tiny nation that seems little more than a dot on the coast of Borneo, has taken over as chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, widely known as ASEAN. Almost every member of ASEAN has been embroiled in disputes with China over islands and reefs in the South China Sea just off their coasts. China is now claiming them as its own territory. That has led to multiple conflicts and military confrontations over the last two years.

The United States and other nations have been calling for a so-called “code of conduct” for the South China Sea. Visiting the region last fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Asian states to draw up a code. And while in Brunei early this month, the top US military commander in Asia, Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, strove to drive the point home.

“We desperately need a code of conduct,” he said in a speech at Brunei’s military academy.

ASEAN members and their Western allies have been saying that for years. But for all that time, China has fought this idea—insisting that it wants to negotiate with each state individually, not take on the entire block of states, united under ASEAN.

So much hope is pouring into Brunei right now because it’s a small, wealthy, highly educated state with the smallest area of dispute with China—just one submerged reef. The country’s deputy foreign minister argues that Brunei may be small, but that makes the country less threatening, especially to China.

That’s in sharp contrast to the last ASEAN chairman, Cambodia—China’s only real friend in the neighborhood because of the billions in aid Beijing has supplied in recent years. In return Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made sure the push for a South China Sea code of conduct made no progress during 2012.

Just before ASEAN’S July meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao came to Phnom Penh for a private visit. When the conference started a short time later, Hun did manage to keep that subject off the agenda. And when the meeting ended, ASEAN issued no joint final statement at all, for the first time in its 45-year history.

Then in November, President Obama attended the second and final ASEAN conference in Cambodia. So did Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

At the meeting’s end, Hun read a statement asserting that ASEAN had reached consensus: The South China Sea controversy would not be “internationalized”—meaning that each ASEAN nation would have to negotiate with China on its own. No code of conduct.

That’s exactly what China wanted. But nearly all of the other ASEAN members angrily complained that they'd never agreed to any such thing.

Now it’s all up to Brunei.


Photo Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata

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