China and Southeast Asian nations will hold talks this week aimed at breaking a long impasse over attempts to forge a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The meeting will test whether Beijing has softened its stand following pressure from its neighbors and the United States for a swift resolution of the disputes over potentially oil-rich territories, including the Spratly Islands, analysts said.
Washington is particularly concerned that China's increasingly assertive posture over its maritime territorial ambitions could trigger conflicts in the region that could hurt access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.
The Dec. 22-23 meeting in China's southwestern Kunming city follows assurances from Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Beijing is committed to implementing an agreed blueprint for managing their overlapping claims to ownership of the islands.
The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, called DOC by diplomats, was inked in 2002 as a first step towards a binding code of conduct for Beijing and the 10-member ASEAN group, but the agreement has been gathering dust.
The reason: China has objected to a key component of a set of guidelines proposed by ASEAN for implementation of the agreement.
Four ASEAN claimants
China is against a paragraph that allows the four ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—to hold informal consultations among themselves prior to an ASEAN-China meeting, officials said.
Beijing insists that the Spratly issue does not concern the four ASEAN claimants collectively, or ASEAN as a group.
"Until now both sides could not agree on paragraph 2 of the seven-paragraph guidelines," one ASEAN diplomat told RFA ahead of the meeting of the DOC joint working group.
"We have been trying to propose different formulations for paragraph 2 over the years, but none is agreeable to China," the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
ASEAN and China pledged in the DOC to resolve their sovereignty disputes in a peaceful manner, without resorting to the use of force.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have separate claims over parts of the Spratlys, while China claims all of the Spratlys and adjacent waters as well as other islands further south of China's nine dotted dashes on its official map, which form a U shape reaching down to Indonesia's Natuna Sea.
The Paracel Islands, like the Spratlys further south, are also claimed by both China and Vietnam. In 1976, China invaded and captured the islands from Vietnam.
Except for Brunei, all claimants have deployed troops in the disputed territories.
Only if China accepts the guidelines can it and ASEAN embark on joint South China Sea projects aimed at "confidence building," such as exchanging information, carrying out search and rescue operations and talks among military or defense officials, and combating transnational crime, officials said.
"There are many questions over whether we can move forward with the guidelines," the ASEAN diplomat said.
"Can China show flexiblity and agree to paragraph 2? Can ASEAN show flexiblity and do without paragraph 2? Can ASEAN put aside the guidelines for the time being and go ahead to jointly implement the confidence building projects? Can ASEAN drop the guidelines altogether?"
One possible solution is for a clear statement that the DOC implementation guidelines will not prejudice any concerned parties' sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, political and security director at the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat.
China's objections came as a result of its "second thoughts" about the DOC, fearing that it could jeopardize its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, Termsak said in an op-ed in Thailand's The Nation newspaper in September.
Chinese PM's assurance
Chinese Premier Wen told his ASEAN counterparts at a Hanoi meeting nearly two months later that Beijing would work with other nations "to earnestly implement" the DOC.
"We will jointly work toward the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea and work to bilaterally resolve the dispute in an appropriate manner," he said.
His assurance came after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in July that the dispute over the South China Sea is of strategic importance to Washington, calling for an early implementation of the DOC to reduce tensions and build confidence.
The United States also said it was prepared to act as a mediator.
By raising the issue, the United States had hoped that Beijing would be forced to recalibrate its position and adopt a more flexible and accommodating stance, said Ian Storey, an expert at the Singapore-based Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.
"The acid test of this expectation is whether meaningful progress can be achieved over the next 12 months on implementing the DOC," he said in a report published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation. "There are cautious grounds for optimism."
Storey however cautioned that achieving ASEAN consensus on the issue would be "problematic," as membership is made up not just of claimant states, but of nonclaimant states—Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Singapore, and Thailand—some of which have close ties to China.
"Moreover, even though the DOC contains some potentially useful confidence-building measures, given the problem has become overlain by nascent Sino-U.S. maritime rivalry, it remains doubtful whether its implementation will fundamentally change the dynamics of the dispute," he said.