Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Resolve on South China Sea key to ASEAN chair

Myanmar must avoid bowing to any form of international pressure on the South China Sea dispute when it takes the ASEAN chairmanship next year, a government official says.

U Aung Htoo, deputy director general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ASEAN Affairs Department, said Myanmar would seek to emulate the approach of Brunei and work toward a diplomatic solution to the dispute.

Five ASEAN nations – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – are claimants to sections of the South China Sea, while China claims much of the sea through its proposed boundary, which is known as the nine-dash line. Taiwan also has a claim.

In the past China has insisted on negotiating the boundary with other claimants individually, while ASEAN members have proposed negotiating collectively. Tensions remain high but the first talks toward a code of conduct to resolve the dispute were launched in September.

On October 10, participants at East Asia Summit – the 10 ASEAN members and eight other countries, including the United States, China and Japan – welcomed “positive progress” on official consultations toward the code of conduct.

U Aung Htoo said Myanmar will try to add further momentum to these initial talks.

“China has now agreed to the principle of a code of conduct to resolve the South China Sea dispute. We can’t go against China and we will try our best to handle the dispute with China’s agreement as much as we can,” U Aung Htoo said.

He said it was important that Myanmar is not perceived as favouring either side in the dispute, adding that it would seek to avoid the situation that occurred when Cambodia chaired the group in 2011 and acceded to China’s demands on the text of an ASEAN communiqué, prompting a major diplomatic squabble.

“We will be able to release regional statements without being influenced by external pressure,” he said.

Danny Chian Siong Lee, director of the ASEAN secretariat's Community Affairs Development Directorate, said the bloc’s members are committed resolve their differences with China through peaceful negotiations and engagement. He said it is a view shared by China.

Gao Mingo, the head of the Political and Information Section at the Chinese embassy in Yangon, said his country is committed to resolving the dispute “peacefully … through consultation and negotiation”.

He said that the issue should not be allowed to overshadow broader ties between China and ASEAN.

“The disputes over the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN nations are not the entirety of China-ASEAN relations,” he told The Myanmar Times.

“China and ASEAN countries enjoy friendly relations and there’s vast potential for future development.

“China looks forward to jointly working with ASEAN countries to … ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

During its year-long tenure as ASEAN chair, Myanmar is also likely to come under scrutiny for its handling of issues such as Rohingya citizenship, the peace process with armed ethnic groups, economic reform, anti-terrorism efforts and climate change.

U Than Maung, an adviser to the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs think-tank, said Myanmar needs to adhere to an “independent” foreign policy to avoid conflict with its ASEAN partners or other members of the international community.

“It could damage Myanmar’s international standing if it cannot manage these issues effectively,” U Than Maung said.

U Kye Myint, also from Myanmar-ISIS, said he was concerned that Myanmar would be “sandwiched” by China and the US, which favours the position of ASEAN’s claimants.

ASEAN Affairs Department director general U Aung Lynn said Myanmar was committed to the code of conduct. “Building trust and using diplomacy is the foundation of resolving this dispute.”

Myanmar will host the first ASEAN meetings as chair of the bloc on January 15. It received the chairmanship at a handover ceremony in Brunei on October 10.