At the first Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum held in Manila Oct. 3 to 4, China became the focus of all discussions for its aggressive and sweeping maritime disputes with four nations in the regional alliance -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
As one of eight non-ASEAN members invited to the forum, China fended off its awkward presence as public pinata by offering nearly $500 million to the Association of South East Asian Nations in an attempt to buy some hospitality.
However, highlighting the offer would draw too much attention to an attempt by Beijing at influence-buying. It might also ignite a domestic outcry from Chinese at home objecting to the deal after months of an efficient propaganda machine excoriating "little countries" in ASEAN for having the nerve to challenge China's sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea.
As a result, news of the aid was not made public by the Chinese delegates. Instead, it was announced in Manila by the Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Quang Vinh at the news conference after the conclusion of the forum.
The $474 million fund promised by China was given to ASEAN for "maritime cooperation" without the usual specifics associated with this sort of aid. There was no further explanation as to how the money will be spent and who will manage the money within the ASEAN.
China is essentially isolated in its maritime and territorial disputes with many of its neighbors, including Brunei, India, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.
A key Chinese strategy is to prevent all challengers to China's territorial claims from forming a coalition against it.
At present, China is deeply involved in maritime and naval brinksmanship with Japan over the disputed Senkaku islands, known in China as Diaoyudao, and cannot afford getting involved in another standoff with some of the more belligerent challengers within the ASEAN, notably the Philippines and Vietnam.
China's nightmare with ASEAN is expected to get worse because within two months, a Vietnamese official, most likely the senior diplomat Le Luong Minh, will serve as ASEAN secretary-general for a three-year term.
The top ASEAN job is rotated in alphabetical order by state. For the past three years, Surin Pitsuwan of Thailand has been the ASEAN secretary-general. His term expires on Jan. 1.
China dominates summit
Unlike previous meetings, the latest ASEAN summit also included representatives from eight other countries of consequence at what was called the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum. They included Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States.
Seizing a rare opportunity of having all the squabbling regional disputants under one roof to talk about differences, State Department officials attending the two-day conference proposed that the expanded forum be held yearly to resolve regional maritime and territorial disputes.
ASEAN officials enthusiastically embraced the U.S. proposal.
"The ASEAN member states recommended that the ASEAN secretariat conduct a study and make recommendations on the potential institutionalization of the ASEAN Maritime Forum," said an official ASEAN statement issued Sunday.
Conflict resolution with China was the main focus of attention during the session.
"The ASEAN Member States made an assessment of the current status of regional maritime security and cooperation, and shared country perspectives on the current prospects and challenges concerning maritime cooperation," according to the official statement.
"They emphasized in particular the respect of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and other ASEAN-initiated documents such as the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, the Bali Concords, the 1976 Treaty of Amity of Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea], and the recent Six-Point Principles on the West Philippine Sea."
China steadfastly rejected any application of international or regional law to its maritime claims in the South China Sea. Beijing also vehemently objected to any efforts to make the multiple maritime disputes with China an ASEAN-wide issue, despite the fact that four of the 10 member states are challenging China's claims. China prefers to deal with its challengers one by one.
Miles Yu's column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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