By William Gallo
China is denying that it is attempting to create discord within the ASEAN regional bloc in an attempt to exert more influence in disputed areas of the energy-rich South China Sea.
Some observers say Beijing does not want the 10-member Southeast Asian grouping to unify on the matter because China would rather deal with its much weaker rival claimants separately.
But an article in China’s official Xinhua news agency dismissed the allegations, calling them Western attempts to stoke “mistrust and enmity between China and its close neighbors.”
The accusations intensified last month when ASEAN failed to move ahead on the South China Sea issue at a regional summit in Cambodia. The group failed to produce a joint statement for the first time in its 45-year history, an impasse that was widely attributed to Chinese political pressure.
But Xinhua on Monday shot back, suggesting such a split is the result of the “meddling of some Western countries” that are looking for a divided Asia, in an apparent reference to the Obama administration’s recent so-called “pivot” towards the region.
Carlyle Thayer, a specialist on ASEAN affairs at the University of New South Wales, says it would be a mistake to argue that long-standing territorial disputes between China and its five rival claimants are the result of recent U.S. policy decisions.
“I think to put all the blame, or to even try to elevate the importance of the U.S. as the instigator has gotten the facts wrong,” stated Thayer. “These disputes existed long before the so-called pivot was announced.”
Thayer acknowledges that the Philippines and Vietnam, the two ASEAN members most outspoken against China’s maritime claims, have become emboldened following the U.S. rebalancing. But he says U.S. officials have recently made comments encouraging restraint.
The Xinhua commentary comes as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi wrapped up his five-day tour of Southeast Asia, where he said China was willing to work with regional leaders on a long-delayed code of conduct to reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
Thayer says Yang’s trip is likely a bid by Beijing to limit the fall-out (damage) from the failure of last month’s ASEAN summit, which some say highlighted China’s heavy-handed efforts to create a more compliant ASEAN.
“I think the foreign minister’s visit was a fence-mending [trip] designed to give reassurance that at least cooperative activities which have been in abeyance on the South China Sea are about to start and that the long-protracted negotiations on a code of conduct will be put back on track,” said Thayer.
Following a meeting with Yang, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman called on ASEAN countries to settle their disputes with one another before dealing with China, raising the prospect of whether the trip was a success for Beijing.
China has become increasingly assertive in claiming nearly all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, which is thought to hold vast energy deposits and is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the region.