By Ernie Bower and Lie Nathanael Santoso
Last year at the 17th ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a forceful statement about U.S. interests in seeing the territorial disputes in the South China Sea resolved through peaceful means, multilateral forums, and appropriate channels of international law. Clinton said the United States was an interested party in the sea-lanes of navigation in the South China Sea, routes through which nearly half of global trade passes, and which are vital for military transportation. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China reacted angrily before storming out of the meeting in Hanoi.
This year’s narrative was markedly different, as extensive U.S.-China discussions ahead of the meetings resulted in a more cooperative tone among all parties. The Chinese apparently recognized, at least in the near term, that their assertiveness on sovereignty claims in the South China Sea was undercutting their own national security policies, including maintaining friendly relations with their neighbors.
China’s actions over the last two years triggered anxieties in many ASEAN countries about a powerful and nearby China asserting its interests and using economic leverage to achieve its strategic and sovereign goals. China may have stepped back from that position, at least in the near term, and demonstrated goodwill by agreeing to an eight-point understanding identifying steps to move from the Declaration of a Code (DOC) of conduct to a Code of Conduct (COC) with ASEAN in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the guidelines would go a “long way [to help] peace and stability in the region.” Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell said that the United States believed the guidelines marked progress but were only a first step and that more discussions need to be held among the United States, China, and ASEAN.
Now that the United States and Russia have joined the EAS and presidents of those two countries will participate for the first time in the EAS leaders meeting in Bali in November, the ARF has begun to evolve from a consultative and nonbinding discussion to a de facto ministerial meeting preparing the agenda for the EAS meeting. In fact, as regional security architecture develops in the Asia Pacific, it is likely that the ADMM+ will begin to play a similar ministerial role for defense ministers leading up to the EAS.
Ernest Z. Bower is Senior Advisor and Director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Lie Nathanael Santoso is a researcher in the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.