KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia can play a role in easing regional tensions in the wake of China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, said Professor Dr David Arase (pic) from the John Hopkins University-Nanjing University-Centre for Chinese and American Studies.
To minimise this risk, Asean, whose chairmanship falls to Malaysia next year, should negotiate for a maritime code of conduct (COC) agreement with China, he suggested.
“Malaysia is in a position to exert some leadership. It should use its experience, expertise and resources to push for a COC,” said Dr Arase, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to meet academics and policymakers, and also spoke at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia.
Dr Arase cited China’s move to park an oil rig off the Paracel Islands, which is also claimed by Vietnam, along with the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel in the dispute area as a major concern.
“In this situation, it’s not impossible to imagine a conflict where shots are fired and people are hurt before things can get out of control.
“So with the COC, presumably, when these things happen you can have rules to disengage.
“Those involved can follow procedures to negotiate and mediate,” he said.
However, said Dr Arase, the COC is not a mechanism to point out who is right or wrong but a way for countries to avoid open armed conflict.
“We want countries which have disputes to manage them according to international law and peaceful procedures,” he said.
He pointed out that Asean countries among themselves have overlapping claim disagreements over territory and this makes the COC even more important.
Asean members, he said, should close ranks and collectively negotiate multi-laterally with China for a COC.
“To bring China around, Asean countries would be well advised to pull together,” he said.
Dr Arase said China saw the South China Sea as a strategic area which they want to control for their own security but they have yet to define the maritime territory they are claiming.
“This assertiveness by China to advance their claims is part of the new foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, who came into office in 2012.
“He is advancing his new agenda of China as a great power, China as the leader of Asia,” he said.
However, Chinese scholars and even officials may not be able to explain which islands or waters are theirs, because they don’t know.
“What this means is that China’s position is still fluid. Even though it’s being assertive, it’s not yet quite clear about all the details, so this is a great opportunity for the countries in the region to respond,” he said .
He added that although China had been adamant about not negotiating over its sovereignty and territory, but in practice China may be more pragmatic.
Dr Arase said Asean should get China to make clear the maritime boundaries which they are claiming before disputes over borders can be resolved.
“Asean needs to push back, ask and clarify.
“It’s not unreasonable to ask for this,” he said.