The South China Sea issue will no
doubt be on the table later this week when ministers from South-East
Asia and their allies meet in Brunei, despite objections from
US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to join the annual gathering, more proof that Washington is indeed pivoting its attention to the region, with a wary eye on China.
Kerry is likely to push for joint commitment to the principle of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a vital trade route for China, the US, India, Japan and South-East Asia.
"The South-China Sea dispute is no longer a conflict between China and ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations)," said Ralf Emmers, associate professor at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"Because of the sea links across the South China Sea, there is now increased interest from other great powers, especially the US," he told a recent seminar in Bangkok.
ASEAN has been trying to manage territorial disputes in the South China Sea for the past two decades, with decreasing success of late.
On May 9, for instance, Philippine coast guard personnel shot dead a Taiwanese fisherman in disputed waters.
"The tragic incident was not the first of its kind in the South China Sea nor, sadly, is it likely to be the last," said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of South-East Asian Studies in Singapore.
Tensions have arguably been on the rise in the area since 2009, when the Philippines enacted legislation claiming sovereignty over the disputed Huangyan Island, irking China.
In March, the same year, there was a standoff at sea between a US submarine doing surveillance in the area and five Chinese ships.
In June 2011, Vietnamese vessels chased Chinese fishing boats out of a disputed area.
In April last year, China and the Philippines had another standoff when Chinese ships occupied a shoal claimed by Manila.
In January 22 this year Philippines submitted the Sino-Manila South China Sea dispute for arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China declared the Philippine submission was "factually flawed," "contained false accusations" and violated the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), but Manila remained committed to the arbitration process.
Among the 10 members of ASEAN, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have territorial disputes with China in the area.
"So long as the actions of the principal actors continue to be motivated by nationalist rhetoric, an unwillingness to compromise sovereignty claims and competition over access to maritime resources, there is little prospect that this trend will be reversed any time soon," Storey said.
The disputed area claims oil reserves of up to 30 billion tons and 20 trillion cubic metres of gas reserves, according to China's Ministry of Land and Resources.
China has always insisted that the South China Sea disputes need to be handled bilaterally, and has so far refused to start negotiations with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct in the disputed zone, arguing that even the DOC signed in 2002 has yet to be respected.
China would not accept a Code of Conduct or the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as the definitive solution "no matter what they contain," said Su Xiao-hui, deputy director of International and Strategic Studies at the Chinese Institute of International Studies.
"We believe the US plays a negative role in the South China Sea," Su told a Bangkok seminar. "We have noticed the internationalization of the South China Sea issue ... we would like to stop this trend and to talk directly to the separate claimants."
Given Beijing's firm stance, no one expects a breakthrough on the South China Sea issue at the Brunei foreign ministers' meeting.
More worrisome for ASEAN would be the possibility that the US and China might use the Brunei meeting for regional sabre rattling.
"What the ASEAN countries want to avoid by all means is to have to choose between China and the US," Emmers said. "That is their ultimate nightmare."
"The more competition you see flaring up in the South China Sea, the more the ASEAN countries may be forced to choose between China and the US, and ultimately that would reduce ASEAN's unity, centrality and neutrality."
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