This year, Burma’s government is chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for the first time, having previously been ruled out of the position because of the country’s military regime. As chair it will have to address 21st-century Asia’s most complicated and potentially destabilizing issue: the dispute between China and its Asean neighbors, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, about overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Asean’s most important meetings will be conducted at the end of the year. On May 10-11, the 24th Asean Summit will take place in Naypyidaw when Asean foreign ministers will gather.
Last year’s Asean chair Brunei won plaudits for its balanced handling of meetings over the dispute, 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 the most important trade partner, the biggest foreign investor and formerly a key ally to the military regime.
Discussions on the South China Sea have hit a snag on establishing a Code of Conduct (CoC) that would set rules for parties in case of a dispute. Vietnam and the Philippines are vocal supporters of the initiative, but China prefers to resolve any dispute bilaterally. In 2013, a Joint Working Group of was formed in which China and Asean will further discuss the CoC.
Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Hsu Mon spoke with Nyunt Maung Shein, chairman of the government-affiliated Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies (MISIS) and a former Burmese diplomat, about Naypyidaw’s approach to South China Sea issue.
QUESTION: What are the main reasons for the South China Sea dispute between China and the four Asean member countries?
ANSWER: The dispute will not be solved quickly during Myanmar’s chairmanship because there are complicated [disagreements over] ownership of [South China Sea] islands; and there are also many mineral, oil and fisheries resources… To solve this problem, there is a mechanism that is called the Code of Conduct [CoC] that needs to be developed. Currently, Asean member countries have been trying to draw up the CoC but it requires time. Asia is a fast-growing economic engine in the world at this time, these disputes should be ended in order not to harm Asia’s image. Before the [24th] Asean Summit, international experts held a seminar and workshop to seek a solution which they will propose at the summit…. [Government] leaders will consider their solutions for this issue.
Q: During Asean meetings in recent years, the chairman has not been able to resolve this difficult issue. What will Burma do in order to try to resolve the dispute?
A: The resolution process will keep going and, as I said, it requires time. It moves in incremental steps, the process will gradually develop. All steps should occur at a pace that is comfortable to all countries involved in this dispute. We should not rush to try to get a result… China wants to gradually develop a resolution for this problem.
We can’t compare the results of last year and this year, and which one is more significant. Senior-level meetings have continued among Asean leaders until now, so it means there is improvement. Even drawing up the Declaration of Conduct, the DoC, took at least 10 years. [The DoC from the early 2000s states all China-Asean disputes should be resolved peacefully]. We already have the DoC, but we need to implement guidelines on how to apply this [in the case of the South China Sea]. During this time, we need to build up mutual trust between China and Asean countries.
Q: China and Burma have a relationship that has been close for longer than other Asean countries. Will this play a role in resolving the South China Sea dispute, and is there a risk that Burma will appear biased in favor of China?
A: Yes that’s right, China is a neighboring country that has a long friendship [with Myanmar]; we have a good relationship. But on the other hand, there is also Asean unity and strategy, so we want to solve this problem peacefully and in an unbiased manner…
But it’s early to say what will happen as we haven’t received the proposal from international experts for the upcoming summit. We have a Joint Working Group [between China and Asean] now to solve this dispute. Through this committee, we submitted the results [of the seminars] for discussion with senior officials.
Q: What sort of political and economic impacts can the South China Sea dispute have on Burma?
A: There won’t be an impact politically, but economically. Maritime routes run through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea between China, Japan, Korea and Western countries. One third of all maritime trade passes through this Strait, one ship every minute passes through this sea lane. It’s a really big issue, so we need to try our best to resolve this problem during our chair in this year.
Q: Will the South China Sea dispute be the single biggest issue for Burma during its Asean chairmanship and the upcoming 24th Asean Summit?
A: It will be one of the issues at this summit. The rest of the issues are also important, such as reviewing the Asean Charter, and the most important [other issue] is to implement the Asean Economic Community [AEC] next year, in 2015. We have a big responsibility to plan the implementation of the AEC one year ahead. The South China Sea will only be one of the important issues in this Summit. China is a biggest trade partner for the Asean member countries, so there are also other, positive relationships between both sides.