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How ASEAN made wise decision about South China Sea issue
Author :  Wang Yiwei Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2016-08-09
After much fanfare, the disputes about the South China Sea are beginning to quiet down again. Against this backdrop, the 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting convened on July 24 in Vientiane, Laos, and released a joint statement afterwards.
By avoiding the subject of the Philippines’ recent attempt to seek the arbitration of an outside party, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have shown their resolve to go forward and not let its agenda be derailed or hijacked by outside countries with ulterior motives. This highlights the three principles that form the foundation of the ASEAN community.
The first principle is to seek common points while reserving differences. China has conflicts with a few ASEAN countries, but peace and stability in the South China Sea is in the common interest of all parties involved. That is why China supports the“dual-track approach” Brunei has proposed. The success of the meeting was built through an insistence on maintaining this principle, not submitting to the will of individual countries.
Achievements over the course of Southeast Asian integration also depend on the same basis: sticking to the common goal of developing the ASEAN community while allowing different attitudes toward the South China Sea issue. Laos, which holds the rotating presidency of ASEAN, and Singapore, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogue, both correctly understand the interests of China and ASEAN, leading to steady progress.
The second principle is to advance step by step. When facing lots of affairs to be handled, one should first deal with the most urgent. Now, the most critical task for ASEAN is to eliminate the regional development gap and promote regional integration in order to lead East Asia integration. The South China Sea issue cannot be solved within a short period of time.
Promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a priority because it can launch a new round of global trade and investment. China has always been active in participating in and advancing RCEP negotiations. China also contributed to drafting and implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea, and it engaged in discussions about the code of conduct for parties involved.
The United States is a power from outside the region that represents the strongest military force operating there. In pursuit of self-interest, it continues to disrupt peace in the region out of national interest in conjunction with its allies, including Japan and Australia. The newly elected government of the Philippines understands these ulterior motives and refuses to be a pawn.
The third principle is to unify knowledge and action, and it is also the key to ensure the aforementioned two principles. This requires staying true to the mission of regional integration and ASEAN-China cooperation. The China-initiated “Belt and Road” strategy helps to promote the connectivity and cooperation between ASEAN and its surrounding countries. China also pledges to set up with ASEAN a cooperative mechanism among Computer Emergency Response Teams and jointly develop the China-ASEAN Information Port, which is conducive to economic and personnel exchanges.
Politically, China has always been a supporter of ASEAN, taking the lead in joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, attracting followers like Japan. In terms of mechanism, China always advocates the leading role of ASEAN in Southeast Asia integration by signing the 10-plus-one cooperative agreement and bringing about the 10-plus-three cooperation framework. China’s moves have won praise from ASEAN countries and that’s why it got backing over the South China Sea disputes.
ASEAN development exhibits the Oriental wisdom and culture characterized by openness and inclusiveness. Correctly handling the South China Sea issue will contribute to building the ASEAN community, while errors in this issue will hinder development. The South China Sea will become a symbol of cooperation, friendship and peace if the three principles are upheld.
The article was translated from People’s Daily. Professor Wang Yiwei is director of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.