BAGAN, Mandalay Division — Burma’s government is hopeful that it can make progress on mediating the divisive South China Sea dispute during its 2014 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Ye Htut, Burma’s deputy information minister and spokesman for President Thein Sein, said Burma hopes the issue can be resolved through dialogue, with Naypyidaw pinning its hopes on making progress with a long-delayed agreement over the disputed sea.
“We are hoping we can move forward on the CoC on the South China Sea. We will try our best to achieve this,” Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy, referring to the long-delayed Code of Conduct (CoC) for claimant parties to the South China Sea.
China has clashed with fellow sea claimants Vietnam and the Philippines repeatedly in recent years, after asserting domain over most of the waters. Other claimants to parts of the sea include Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan, with tensions rising in recent years as countries in the region grow economically and seek new energy sources.
According to a February 2013 report by the US Energy Information Administration, “the South China Sea is a critical world trade route and a potential source of hydrocarbons, particularly natural gas,” with the EIA adding that the sea “contains approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves.”
Ye Htut, the Burma government spokesman, believes that his country’s foot-in-both-camps veneer can help smooth over any flare-up between the disputing claimants.
“Our friendly relationship with China and membership of Asean means we can have good relations with both sides and be impartial and friendly to all parties concerned,” he said, speaking at the sumptuous surrounds of the US$300-a-night Aureum Palace Hotel, the venue for a meeting of Asean foreign ministers that aims to mark out the agenda for Burma’s first-ever chairing of the regional bloc.
Last year’s Asean chair Brunei won plaudits for its balanced handling of meetings over the disputed sea, but in 2012, Cambodia drew the ire of the Philippines in particular due to Phnom Penh’s perceived favoritism toward China. That history means Hanoi and Manila will likely be watchful for any repeat in Burma, where China is listed as the biggest foreign investor.
A deal worked out in September 2013 saw the setting-up of a Joint Working Group (JWG) comprising China and Asean to discuss the CoC, with the JWG set to meet four times this year.
That format suggests that Burma’s hopes of a diplomatic success with the CoC in 2014 are likely to be disappointed. “Due to the composition of the JWG and the relative infrequency of its meetings, we should not be too hopeful that much progress will be made on the CoC during Myanmar’s chairmanship,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, in an e-mail to The Irrawaddy.
With hopes that an Asean Economic Community (AEC) can be put in place in 2015, Burma’s chairmanship will play a pivotal role in realizing the bloc’s immediate-term ambitions, but progress toward this and other goals could be overshadowed by maritime rivalries on the disputed South China Sea.
China said last month that fishing boats seeking to operate in the South China Sea—known as the East Sea in Vietnam and the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines—must seek Beijing’s approval in advance.
Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi described this latest assertion by Beijing as “illegal and invalid,” while the United States slammed the fishing move as “provocative and potentially dangerous,” in turn prompting China to urge Washington to refrain from commenting on the matter.
Burma’s chairing of Asean will culminate in a year-end set of summits, likely to be held in the capital Naypyidaw, at which Asean heads of government will be joined by US President Barack Obama, China Premier Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, among others.
Conceding that Burma’s poor infrastructure and long isolation could cause stumbling blocks for its Asean leadership this year, Ye Htut nonetheless hopes that the country will be ready.
“Since 2011 we have been preparing, and getting technical assistance from other Asean members and even the UN,” Ye Htut said.
Asean foreign ministers will arrive in Bagan, an old Burmese kingdom capital known for its thousands of Buddhist temples, later on Thursday, for two days of meetings.
Nyan Win, spokesman for the main opposition party, the National league for Democracy (NLD), said Burma’s chairing of Asean was timely, and could push the country’s ongoing political and economic reforms along.
“We hope that the international attention on Burma will mean that reforms will continue and that this can push change to the Constitution,” he told The Irrawaddy, referring to Burma’s 2008 charter, which critics say gives the military too much say in the running of the country and bars NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from realizing her ambition of becoming president of Burma after elections due for late 2015.