Negotiate the Spratlys spat
Beyond the back-slapping and good times, the annual grand meeting of foreign ministers concerned about Southeast Asia may have some real work to do this week. The never-ending tension over the South China Sea islands is once again growing.
At times last year, it seemed that China and the Philippines might actually get into a shooting war in the Spratly Islands area. Now, however, the danger is that China has escalated problems with Vietnam. It's time for the diplomats to get involved.
The meetings get under way in Phnom Penh today. First, the 10 Asean ministers meet. Then they will be joined by counterparts from Japan, China and South Korea for discussions by Asean +3. Still later, a large roomful of foreign ministers and aides will sit down for ARF _ the Asean Regional Forum.
This group extends far and wide in all directions, with a membership of Asean +17. Its participants include Russia and the United States, North Korea and East Timor, Australia and New Zealand, India and Pakistan.
ARF officially describes its accomplishments as "modest", which is grandiose. It is an organisation without a real-world achievement beyond its annual meetings. It was formed in 1994 thanks to a mutual desire Asean states to attract respect from the world, and for the world to stick its nose into the Asean region, diplomatically speaking.
In 2000, Thailand invited North Korea to ARF. The reason was obvious _ Pyongyang is the main brewer and exporter of trouble in the region, while ARF's mission is to cool disturbances. There was momentary optimism that the Kim dynasty was looking outward, but nothing came of it.
Meanwhile, Vietnam and China are locked in a bloodless but escalating confrontation over two island groups. Not only do Hanoi and Beijing claim the Spratlys _ along with the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan _ they also dispute ownership of the Paracel Islands, about equidistant from Vietnam and Hainan.
The islands were in Vietnamese hands for decades, but in 1974 China seized them from then-South Vietnam and sent a few hundred fishermen to fly its flag.
Increasingly bitter statements from both countries have once again brought China and Vietnam uncomfortably close to trading real shots. China has decreed it will open oil drilling contracts in waters within 60 kilometres of Vietnam. Hanoi passed a new maritime law claiming both island groups.
There is real opportunity this week for ARF to demonstrate that it can be useful. All countries involved in the disputes maintain there is nothing to negotiate. In truth, however, diplomacy and good sense is the only way any country will ever see any benefits from the island groups.
Clearly, it will take tough love and head-knocking to get everyone involved to admit the obvious.
Every country involved wants to have the ocean explored, with wells dug and its oil exploited. Yet every country is aggressively engaged in preventing the others from such activities.
Thailand and Malaysia faced a similar problem over disputed waters. After years of talks, they agreed in 1990 to put ownership aside and split the proceeds. Since then 22 fields have been opened with 8.5 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves to be shared. It is the sort of agreement Asean and ARF should pursue this week to keep away the dogs of war.
09 July 2012