China-Japan maritime dispute could affect ASEAN relations

By Kavi Chongkittavorn, The Nation (Thailand)/Asia News Network

In the past five years, the dramatic improvement in China and Japan relations has accelerated and strengthened community building in East Asia as well as the region’s international relations.

ASEAN has quickly built on the newly found pillar. But the recent squabbling over the disputed Diaoyu/Sentaku Islands, known as Tiaoyutai in Taiwan, has shown the fragility of one of the most important bilateral ties in Asia. Every time the two countries cross swords, it sends chilling effects to ASEAN that has maintained close ties with them. Apparently, this time around the implications will be felt much stronger and will not easily fade away. For one reason, Beijing viewed recent multiple spats over the maritime territorial problems with Japan, Korea and ASEAN as attempts to undermine China’s rise and growing influence in the region. The conspicuous absence of ASEAN views over the island dispute indicates the high level of sensitivity of overlapping claims in the maritime territories in which ASEAN members are also entrenched. ASEAN has chosen to remain mute as four ASEAN claimants—Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei—are currently trying to end the eight-year impasse with China over the proposed joint cooperation in the resource rich areas in South China Sea (SCS). After the ASEAN ministerial meeting in July in Hanoi, the ASEAN-China relations fundamentally shifted, as the SCS was given an international highlight as never seen before. For the time being, the ASEAN leaders still heed China’s advice and subsequently worked out with the U.S. not to mention the SCS disputes in the joint statement following their second leaders’ meeting in New York on Sept. 24. It was China’s triumphant diplomatic move — but a short live one. As it turned out, China’s unusual strong response to Japan has resonated quite negatively on the region. The ASEAN claimants have deciphered the Chinese reactions and one message was succinctly clear — the issue of territorial integrity and sovereignty would not be compromised, no matter which country was involved. As such, the future ASEAN-China negotiations over the SCS could be further complicated as the two sides are trying to decide whether to proceed with the proposed cooperation before settling the overlapping claims. ASEAN claimants constantly fear that without proper agreement, let alone settlement of the overlapping sovereignty claims, the future cooperation — as detailed in the Declaration of Code of Conducts for Concerned Parties in South China Sea (2002) — could not proceed.

Now ASEAN is quite concerned that Beijing’s unyielding position could spread to the management of the SCS dispute and hamper future peaceful settlement. One frequently asked question: Is China utilizing the same yardstick used against Japan in handling its territorial disputes with ASEAN?